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Monthly Archives: October 2017

I spent all day unhacking my site and all I got was this lousy shirt.  §

So I was wrong before—I got everything cleaned up and running and updated and then within a couple of hours I was compromised again, and this time more unfuckably so.

I had missed something the first time around or I had a version of something hanging around that was eminently penetrable.

Either way, there was nothing for it but to sigh and really try to do a good job of it rather than a cleanup job of it. So I backed up the DB, wiped 75 percent of the filesystem, emptied out the DB, then reinstalled WordPress 4.8.2 from scratch, restored the DB, restored a bunch of files from backups, etc.

It took way, way too long. This makes me want to absolutely throttle these assholes even more. Who has time for this?

It also makes me want to be a little more careful about:

  1. Leaving old installs of things laying around the filesystem
  2. Running updates on a prompt basis
  3. Not installing quite so many plugins

But in any case, hopefully it all sticks this time, unless I managed to restore from backup something that still has a vulnerability in it. That would make me sad.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a few things are broken or a few entries are borked or something.

It’s hard to run your own little website these days. It’s almost not worth it. But here it is—I’ve just spent 16 hours fighting it back into shape. So let’s say that for the moment, at least, it’s still on the “worth it, just” side of the fence.

I guess that’s one way to spend a Sunday.

Unhacked.  §

I think.

In late September, someone apparently going by “Mido” exploited me here. Basically I left some old installs of WordPress and Drupal hanging around and it’s my guess that they used one of them to get in. Oops. And then they added a bunch of search gaming stuff to have me advertise Rakuten products for them.

I fixed the human-facing side of things within a few days, but the Googlebot, etc. stuff I hadn’t had a chance to get to until today.

So now in a Google search for my name, we’re back to the same old, rather than my name generating a lot of products advertised in Japanese as a result.

Every now and then, this happens. It’s super annoying and mildly worrying, but what’s a person to do? This is 2017. You can be Apple and spend your whole life trying to be secure and still end up pwned. For a little WordPress blog off in the corner of the web universe? The cycles don’t exist. You just run as smart as you reasonably can, cross your fingers, keep backups, and clean up afterward when it happens.

Although no love is lost here for the people that do this kind of stuff. I used to know some “easy money” people in NYC. What I should have done was punch them in the face rather than merely decide to stop hanging out when them when I found out. Punch them in the face and bloody them up against the curb.

We don’t have enough of that kind of justice in society today. One more thing lost with the death of men. Sometimes, the right answer is simply to wind up and let someone have it as a matter of honor, integrity, and doing the right thing.

The self can’t play Atlas for postmodernity because science is now supernatural.  §

The kids and I spent part of this evening adding more Halloween decorations to those already up around the house. We encountered something of a problem—we could not achieve spookiness.

The density of decorations is now fairly high—just about every surface is covered. We have illuminated, sneering pumpkins and skulls and gravestones and spiderwebs and several wraiths with glowing eyes and all of that, but it’s just not spooky.

I want to say that something about the new floor, which we recently installed, has changed the dynamic in the room. You’d think that with the shift from carpet to faded driftwood on the floor, the “old cabin in the woods” factor would have increased net spookiness, but it didn’t.

I think that the appearance of old wood is so elemental, so real in some way, that it overpowers the silliness of mere decorations. It looks actually old, actually beyond the human sphere. When the wall-to-wall carpet was in place, the juxtaposition of the “cosy” very synthetic and manufactured carpet with images of forces that lay beyond direct human influence made for “spookiness.” The juxtaposition, the bringing-in of natural (bones) or supernatural (reanimated bones) elements acted as a reminder of the very real limits to human power and control.

But now the entire upstairs floor has the appearance of having come from nature, from a history that is not entirely a human history; the sight of wood grain everywhere is a reminder of nature’s own inscrutable and independent determinsim—or non-determinism, take your pick—and now it’s the plastic skeletons that suddenly look manufactured.

And taken together as a lot, the decorations just aren’t spooky anymore in this new environment. Oh well, them’s the breaks.

— § —

Ironically enough, the floor is actually synthetic—it’s vinyl tile. But it looks like old driftwood. In fact, it does a very good approximation.

So in fact what is happening is a deepening of the synthetic approximation of the transcendent that is overtaking or even wiping out mere icons to the transcendent that are more directly representative.

Rather than pointing to the transcendent, we now simulate and replace it with rather powerful effect and efficacy, and nobody who didn’t do the making or the installing is any the wiser.

I think this is a good microcosm of the human social world right now, found in a surprising (and surprisingly small and domestic) space.

The effects of the natural and the supernatural appear to be real, but they are sustained through highly synthetic simulation of increasingly advanced sophistication.

This reminds me of the “Sophia the robot” phenomenon. Based on what I see, and on the learning that is going on, I suspect that machines of her type will eventually come to seem more likable and more genuine to people than many of their fellow human beings. She will become more human than human by studying humans and by simulating human-ness better and more completely, in her algorithms, than any individual human being can.

There is, after all, a varying amount of the inhuman in all of us. But it is the part that we disclaim, deny, and refuse to look at, under guises of acceptance and justice (at the public level) and simply as a matter of ego (at the personal level).

But engineered machines can excise these parts entirely—which means that it will be more comfortable to be with them. Ideally human through-and-through, with no cognitive or emotional avoidance work to tackle in the process.

I honestly don’t know how I feel about it. The questions are too big.

— § —

In a way, this is all part and parcel of my departure from academics.

You see, there are two levels at which my life is operating right now. One is the day-to-day of practicalities and techniques and production. That continues more or less uncritically and unimpeded.

The other is the big-picture level, the “life, the universe, and everything” level at which Douglas Adams tried to make a joke by answering with “42” and yet in fact, we all know, and he probably knows as well, that this answer is quite serious and may in fact be more empirically true at some deep level than any other answer that’s ever been proposed for “the question.”

Academics claims to operate at the big-picture level, at the end of the day. The “why are we here, what is here, and what is to be done” level. And yet it is wholly inadequate to the task, along multiple axes.

Not only can it not deliver the goods, but it can’t effectively disseminate them, and even what dissemination occurs is intelligible only to a few specialists—and here we return to can’t deliver the goods—who have at best an idiosyncratic, partial, disciplinary perspective that reduces the elephant in each case to a leg, or a tail, or an ear.

I didn’t stop believing in the projects of knowledge or of growth, but rather in the ethos and ideology that proposes that western empiricism (or, for that matter, western anti-empiricism of the social justice variety) are producing knowledge and growth that are actually useful to society in most areas—some STEM fields being the exception here.

But I was not in a STEM field.

We will not fix what ails society by researching society, because society is gestalt humanity and humans are not amenable to crass empiricism.

The solutions that are “working” in the AI space are all emergent, complexity solutions. We pile exponentially more debris up in a system and at some point it begins to come up with solutions that make no sense, shouldn’t work, yet do work and no-one understands why.

This is not a “pure intelligence” phenomenon; circuit and antenna design come to mind here. “There is more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy.”

Once you acccept that this is actually a literal statement of fact, and that this “more” is almost always complex, emergent, and dispersed (temporally, geographically, materially, conceptually, systematically)—and keep in mind here that so far as I am concerned, “complex, emergent, and dispersed” are merely the insecure, reluctant pedant’s terms fo “transcendental,” well…

I just stopped knowing what it was for beyond providing social capital to a few elites. Of which I was unlikely to be one in the end, as is everyone who plays that lottery.

But that’s the crux of the issue—I stopped knowing what it was for.

— § —

It isn’t quite fair to pick on the academy, however, at this juncture.

There are a great many things in my life to which this statement could apply. And a great many things in social or public life.

I’ve said it before, but I think it’s worth saying again—something has broken in the social body. These ruptures happen from time to time throughout human history. Now is such a time. Something has broken, and it will not be fixed. Rather, the rupture will be made obsolete by the emergence of some new emergent configuration, some new state of temporary equilibrium that can neither be engineered nor predicted. That’s the social-scale prognosis.

The individual-scale prognosis is that there is no individual-scale prognosis; I increasingly find that to be an illusion. The transcendental is by definition a phenomenon that is experenced as not-individual or inhering-in-the-self and it is invariably not epiphenomenal to or embodied by the self.

This truth is orthogonal to the dominant culture’s values, which are all about the presumption that the transcendental is, in fact, purely about epiphenomena of selfhood and the presumption that there is nothing beyond the human self.

This even as we increasingly learn to make humans that are more human than human and wood that is more wooden than wood using methods that are more natural than nature in our inability to understand them and in their incredibly deep and transcendental and ineffable scope and operation.

— § —

I suspect that this is, in fact, the nature of the problem.

The epistemology of the moment misconstrues itself and, as a result, also the ontology of the moment. The social rupture in our time is a rupture in immanence; there is a particular social matter embedded in a structural fabric and architecture of social antimatter, and we take both for granted and as true.

This state of affairs does not continue without explosion, annihilation, and a tremendous release of energy, followed by the formations of new objects and threats of history, material and otherwise.

— § —

In short, Halloween decorations are no longer spooky because we have realized that science, too, has led us in the end to the supernatural, and we rely on it and are embedded in it more and more each day in the course of our regular lives.

And yet—at the same time—we disclaim the supernatural more than we ever have before, do not see it hanging in the air of ambient infrastructure (though honestly it no longer feels right to call this infrastructure, as that term belongs to a different era possessed of a very different technics and metaphysics) and sanction against speaking or thinking of it.

We are die-hard rationalists and empiricists in a supernatural world of our own making which demonstrates empirically that rationalism and empiricism lead also to the supernatural—that rationalized production of instrumentally applicable affordances does not apply, despite instrumental applicability, that these affordances are themselves rational, and indeed, the better and more applicable they become, the more they are not—and the more we descend into the world of scientific witchcraft, of enlightened sorcery.

When Arthur C. Clarke said that any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic, he no doubt did not imagine that the appearance of magic was such for the parents of such technology.

In fact, it is.

And this state of affairs is irreconcilable with either modern or postmodern cultural norms. What is required—and what will no doubt emerge—is a new hypermodern medievalism or monasticism; the return of the convent, the abbey, the monastery, this time in the ambient ocean of AI, genetic algorithms, and material automation under their auspices, which are every bit as mysterious, all-powerful, and distant from us as god, despite our having created them.

— § —

Consider the implications of the coming singularity—which now seems all but inevitable—in this light.

In our compulsion to reject god and his suggestion that what we are good for is to serve, not to rule, we decided to go so far as to create god again anew, from whole cloth, to prove who is master.

And having done so, we will find that we once again can neither fathom nor control the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful entity—if indeed it is even that, as once again we do not clearly know—that we have created.

Even what it all means eludes us, infuriatingly, once again, apart from the unavoidable conclusion that if even when we attempt to seize control of the universe and do so successfully, we are left to serve and submit to our own creations.

In short, the human self is very small indeed, and what the culture refuses to come to terms with, even as it embodies this truth to a greater and greater degree, is that our is not to rule, but to serve—and we must make our peace with and find our meanings in that, because once you have killed god, then successfully produced god anew, and you are still neither god nor capable of understanding or even tolerating him, well—

after that, there is no “ultimate metaphysics Plan B” to fall back on.

In even shorter, “That’s your lot, mate.”

— § —

We refuse to accept that it is so, even as we race toward proving that it is so.

We cannot square this circle, and norms and the social fabric compel us not to try and never to concede. This is the deep, ultimate-end-of-things problem with the academy, the economy, the state, religion, and the broader society right now—and with Halloween decorations.

We’ve tossed the fun into the fire, succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, and still have nothing to show for it—because we cannot grok and thus refuse to accept the answer to (not the question of) human life as a phenomenon.

We are very close to having calculated it, and after all this work and the needless death and multiple resurrections of diety, it does in fact look to be… forty-two. Much to our chagrin.

So we refuse to cope and we go on sanitizing more telephones under the auspices of a sound diversity and progress policy that grows ever-more draconian and utopian in our frustration and inadequacy, and we hang out some more neutered skeletons for Halloween as we go.

— § —

Ours appears to be to serve, forever. We must learn to cope.

Trick question: Why is it not okay to be a man?  §

“One of the first roles of marketing is to foster reassurance that what we’re doing isn’t weird and doesn’t stand out.”

— Rory Sutherland

— § —

In recent weeks I finally feel as though a plan is coming together—as though there are a series of goals creeping in at the edges around which I can organize my own development apart from regular income-producing life.

(This being in service of the notion that I am one of those people that always has “side projects” and that needs these, basically, in order to plausibly survive).

It all revoles around masculinity and manhood. And products. And blogging.

Still not sure how it all fits together, but here are some rough outlines:

  • I have a Ph.D. in sociology and can read and distill the tough stuff. My interest in a lot of the academic fluff is waning as I grow older and get distance from the academy and begin to realize how ideological and unempirical most of it is. But I do have a growing interest in some classical tough stuff—aspects of philosophy considering the virtues, traditional roles of masculinity and its relationship to metaphysics, etc.
  • I increasingly want to write about this. To come to public appearance about this. And to support a better future for my son, who is destined to grow into a man in a male-hostile and at the same time, and paradoxically, desperately male-deprived world.
  • I have product and merchandise and marketing interests that are beginning to run in this direction. For a while I was considering a business organized entirely around cameras, typewriters, and wristwatches. There was some connection between them that for a while I struggled to suss out, and then that for a while I thought was all about creativity, but I am beginning to realize that the connection is actually masculinity. These are traditionally masculine things and speak to a certain worldly, initiative-driven, adventurous (in the true sense, not in the hitting-the-bars-for-a-one-night-stand-and-spicy-food-I’ve-not-tried-before sense) persona that was once the archetype of the sort of masculinity that society revered, but now has lost sight of entirely. This archetype needs to come back.
  • I am interested in exploring my own male preferences and identity, finally without the female influences in my life. What are the little pleasures that I enjoy in life? Which things help to foster in me the sense that I am living as my best self? Which things enable the kinds of productivity and being-in-the-world that I desire to sustain?
  • Men need support. Young men in particular. The ladies will scoff at this and that’s fine, scoff away, I don’t mind. The more hysterical (I use that word intentionally) will imagine that I’m about to go off the alt-right deep end. Not the case. And the fact that people immediately go there illustrates the problem—to be a young man and not reject yourself, your biology, and your experience of the world entirely is now to be pathologized. But it’s beyond uncomfortable living as a man in a woman’s world—to have the entire social, emotional, and behavioral universe framed in ways that don’t feel at all natural or clarifying to you. And you believe that you are alone or on an island or somehow broken when feeling this way in secret. Yet when men come together and talk and interact apart from women (something that society is desperately trying to do away with), you find that other men feel the same way, and that the “good ones” aren’t speaking out for fear of doing or saying something wrong or hurtful. But we are not women and that’s okay. It’s time to say that publicly.

Hence, on the last point, the Rory Sutherland quote. I think that’s important.

I think there is a massive universe of lost men out there, men who are desperate to embrace their identity, to be and feel the man that comes naturally to them, but who don’t have the socialization, training, experience, support, or material surroundings and artifacts to help them to do this.

They were raised in an environment devoid of these things and they are now struggling to come to terms with themselves and a strange existence in which they continuously feel like a fish out of water who at the same time has no reason to exist and whom society feels could really simply be done away with and we’d all be better off. They are searching.

The alt-right and the McVeigh-isms have stepped in to fill this void, but they’re pathological. They’re not-unpredictable reactions, but not healthy ones. The reason that they’re succeeding is because there’s essentially no alternative. Someone needs to come up with an alternative.

— § —

This weird mixture of essayism, politics, and products is not conventional and is also not entirely comfortable. In a lot of ways, it makes entirely no sense.

And yet at the same time, this limitation is also entirely a matter of social norms in the broader sense (i.e. social not just in the terms of non-economic social interactions, but in terms of the complete configuration of society—production, consumption, interaction, and so on).

I have the sneaking suspicion that these norms are also in some way feminine impulses—the notion that values, politics, and products ought to be separate. There is much research to be done and much history and philosophy to be read.

— § —

Uncomfortable for me here is the question of political identity.

I have spent my entire life as a person on the left—at my most involved an ardent anticapitalist and at my least involved a farther-left-than-most third-party voter in the United States.

I do not, in fact, believe that I have suddenly become a conservative. There is much about the conservative project and ethos that doesn’t sit well with me. And yet at the same time, there is now also much about the “progressive” project in the United States and Europe that doesn’t sit well with me.

I don’t quite know where I fit. I do know that I have become a fan of an assortment of things that most would say don’t go together and are incoherent:

  • Rod Dreher, Camille Paglia, Bernie Sanders, and Penelope Trunk
  • The American Solidarity Party
  • Antiquty’s classics
  • The body of the world’s great religious texts
  • Cameras, typewriters, and mechanical wristwatches
  • College football and the idea that it is violent and dangerous and also noble
  • etc.

It’s not that I embrace everything from each of these; there is much in each that is either wrongheaded or untenable. And yet each is also carrying the torch for something in particular that is increasingly missing in our society. It is about what each brings to the table that no one or nothing else is bringing to the table.

It’s a mishmash right now, all this stuff swirling around in the back of my mind. But the sensibility is gradually coming to coherence. It is a matter of trying to have thoughts in substance and method that are verboten in your social and cultural milieu. It is not easy to do so, and requires much groping and work.

— § —

Jose Martí had three prescriptions for becoming a man—plant a tree, have a child, and write a book. Hemingway, having been a Cubanophile, expanded this list to:

  1. Plant a tree
  2. Have a son
  3. Fight a bull
  4. Write a novel

I think Martí’s start was a good one, but that in fact Hemingway got it right. And the fact that so many bloggers have taken the time to try to pillory Hemingway’s list tells me that I’m not alone—in their consternation, these bloggers give away the game and their own insecurities, which I’m going to wager have to do with the credence that they wish they weren’t giving to this list in some deep, dark place.

There is a lot of this insecurity about, which is the source of much of the ultimate discourse and in fact production and consumption in the American economy today; “methinks all these folks do protest too much,” etc.

The giant posters at Whole Foods explaining its virtues loudly cover the fact that many aren’t quite successful in convincing themselves of them—but are compelled by the fallacy of sunk costs and the discomfort of the harshness of reality to not confront this possibility.

For men, the thing is to rehabilitate this reality—to make it seem okay to be a man again, and to maybe resurrect the dialogue on what malehood is, but emphatically not in either academic or theological space, as the former is currenly pure ideology and social gamesmanship and the latter is personal.

Public, everyday masculinity needs to be come a viable product again. I suspect that the demand is huge, if it can be made to be okay again to be a man—to speak like a man, to think like a man, to shop like a man, to live like a man.

— § —

We need more bullfighting, more football, more courage, and more sons. Not less or fewer of these things. There has to be some way to bring this all to market in a genuine way.

It’s not that we have to dismiss women or stop listening to them as men. We just need to learn to say, and to have the courage to say—as women have now been doing for decades—it’s okay, you can’t possibly understand because you’re not a man. We need to rediscover and embrace the unique value that we bring to the world, and to society—to stop being ashamed and scared and to learn how to be impressive and authentic once again.

It’s not about fostering toxicity, it’s about loving truth.

Things.  §

  • MGTOW? I suppose not. But it is tempting. Very tempting. Thing is, I don’t think it buys us anything. The problem in the world today is that there isn’t enough masculinity, not that there’s too much of it. “Masculinity” meaning calm, strength, reserve, courage, responsibility, and wisdom. Yes, those are masculine traits. Sorry, they are, and I’ve seen nothing in my life to make me think otherwise. No, not Trump, we don’t need more Trump. We need masculinity enough to make the open claim that masculinity is not the same thing as “toxic masculinity” and that while we may have a recent surplus of the latter, we also have a dearth of the former. If good, strong men check out, we’re in trouble. Contrary to what the toxic wing of femininity so loudly proclaims.
  • Problem is, good strong men are checking out. Or rather, they are no longer coming to fruition. They’re being undermined before they ever develop; they are not reaching adulthood.
  • I refuse to virtue signal. In a world of virtue signalling gone mad, in which it has become such a habit for people that they don’t even realize that they’re merely virtue signalling any longer—that they have not a single virtue of their own that will actually stand up, that it’s all hat and no cattle—I refuse. Call me what you will. There is a tremendous amount of bullshit out there being mistaken for enlightenment, and precious little enlightenment.
  • The best strategy of evil is to proclaim that good is actually evil. That strategy is working out pretty well right now. A few people from former totalitarian societies are pointing this out, but the virtue signalers don’t hear anything that they’re saying because to even lend an ear is orthogonal to seizing the best opportunities to virtue-signal.
  • It’s a time of decline. There is no point analyzing it because there is no audience for the analysis. When all of society goes mad, there is no point in talking about anything any longer. It’s time for those who are not mad to simply go about their business. But probably not to withdraw entirely.
  • The old social more from a century ago was “no sex before marriage.” There is a new version that young men should learn. “No women before fifty.” It is not until you are that age that you are accomplished enough, financially secure enough, or emotionally stable enough to cope with today’s socially constructed dating landscape. Try it any earlier than that and odds are that it will seriously fuck your life up. That’s probably my sense of MGTOW—young men have to be trained to stay focused on themselves and their productive lives until they are developed enough to safely associate with women, which doesn’t happen until later in life. Decades later than used to be the case. They need to be men capable of coping with the world, and with potential mates, and then with mates, before they can become husbands and fathers and leaders effectively. It is simply harder to cope than it used to be—and it does no good to have boys who are not yet men running around at 20 or 30 getting destroyed before they ever have a chance to become men. So that is what is needed—men should wait until they are 50, established, and grown. And in the meantime, women will just have to be patient.
  • I knew this by my mid-twenties and repeatedly told other young guys as much. But I succumbed anyway. It is time that I take my own advice. Eight years until I am ready to date again, at least—because it is simply not wise to do so until then. The world is not configured right now to give men any second chances or safe risks. It is simply unsafe, radically unsafe, to associate with women until you are older and more powerful. At some point, I will learn my lesson. Hopefully I have now.
  • Goethe: “You must either conquer and rule or serve and lose, suffer or triumph, be the anvil or the hammer.” People always come back with bromides about how life isn’t a zero-sum game and zero-sum thinking isn’t helpful. Only it is. It is a zero-sum game. It always has been. And pretending that it’s otherwise doesn’t change a thing. It just allows—in Camille Paglia’s words—the barbarians at the gate to snicker a bit as they overtake you. That it “is not a zero-sum game” is what those who are very good at playing it invariably tell those who (for obvious reasons) end up losing it.

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 the 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 somethings 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 professionals 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 combustion 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 embedded 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 wonderfully 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 mansion 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 to undo 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 that 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.