Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

I’ve worked in a wide variety of very public roles and written a number of books. In my “real life” I’ve had an audience varying from hundreds of thousands to millions over the years, across big media, online media, and academic media.
Some of you may also know me from the classroom, as I’ve taught at a decent array of major universities, in topic areas from linguistics to anthropology to sociology to cultural studies and media. I am not currently teaching.
Companies and Brands
If you’re wondering if I'm the “same Aron Hsiao that...” then, in fact, I probably am. I won't mention all of the companies, brands, and publications here because many of them won’t want to be directly associated with a blog like this one.
On Google
But if you’ve searched Google for “Aron Hsiao” then you’ve found me. The writer me, the professor me, the photographer me, the technology expert me, and so on. All of those pages and pages of results are, in fact, me. I am not aware of any other Aron Hsiao that has recently (in a decade or more) ranked in the first dozen-plus pages of Google’s results.

Born February 29th, 1976
Ph.D. Sociology (The New School, 2014)
M.A. Social Science (Chicago, 2004)
B.A. Anthropology (Utah, 2001)
B.A. English (Utah, 2001)
7 Books
Thousands of articles
1 Life
2 Kids
5 Goldfish
2 Cats
1 Dog
Lived in Salt Lake City, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and now... Provo.
Myers-Briggs INFP/INTP

I started “blogging” for the first time in 1999 at twenty-three years old, as I was going through my first serious breakup. Without meaning to, I continued to blog on a personal basis more or less without interruption after that. Now it’s been going on seventeen years. All of that content (well, most of it) is here, in one place.
In professional life, I have also ended up spending a decent amount of time blogging for an income for others. Still do.
But after all these years, Leapdragon remains home.
Many have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a site like this one, and from 2007 through 2015 I kept it increasingly obscure online. I have grown tired, however, of hiding myself behind a “professional” cardboard cutout. I’m forty years old and my life, like the lives of many others, gets more complicated by the day, personally and professionally.
It’s time to just be me again, in public, and let the chips fall where they may. So here I am.

Politics: Mixed—Old Left + Old Right (Fuck the SJWs)
Music: Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten
Novel: 2666, Roberto Bolaño
Operating Systems: Mac OS, Linux (Android)
Aquarium Fish: Common goldfish, fully grown
Illumination Technology: Neon tubing
Rag: Counterpunch
Academic Work: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Work of Art: Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Helnwein
Art Medium: Still photography
Club/Pub: The Pub, Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago
City: New York City
Place: Antelope Island, Syracuse, Utah
Fabrication Material: Leather
Drink: Green Chartreuse
Beach: Ellwood Beach, Goleta, California
Design Language: Swiss/Modern/Bauhaus
Season: Fall

Blogs make for interesting complications in life.  §

It strikes me every now and then just how odd it is to have a blog. And how reckless, in some ways.

Your name is out there. Everyone that meets you—from new friends to new employers—is free to find and read things you’ve lived, thought, and been. There’s no guarantee they’ll find something representative, or that they’ll hang around long enough to get a rounded image of you.

They might land on a vexing one-liner from a decade ago—or on a ten-page opus you wrote early some A.M. when your better judgement had gone to bed before you.

In a way, that’s thrilling. In another way, it’s at least foolish and possibly worse.

And yet here it is. And sometimes I absolutely love it. I must, after all this time.

The “all or nothing” trope has all and nothing on reality.  §

I am having trouble keeping up with facts on the ground.

This is the danger of road trips.

Particularly of road trips with your ex and your ex’s significant other.

This is proving to be both a terrible thing and also not a bad thing, all at the same time. And thus, this is also proving to be exceedingly confusing and confused.

The saying goes that when the student is ready, the master will appear. I suspect this adage to apply not only to actual human beings but to situational realities and ontological territory more generally.

Life, that inscrutable thing, is tying me in so many interesting knots.

The disentangling, to be completed later, promises also to be a performance of some interest, should it even prove to be possible.

Certain women struggle to move beyond “in utero.”  §

There is a way in which a certain slice of the world’s women, particularly in the western world, unknowingly want to pull everyone and everything around them back into the womb.

Not being a woman, I’m not sure exactly where this comes from or how it feels, but if I were to speculate, it must have something to do with the feeling of loss that comes from once having carried children as a part of one’s body and one’s identity… and then having seen them disembark and emerge into the world as separate beings… and then having seen them begin to wander off, independently, into society.

I’m sure it’s a wistful, if not downright painful, feeling.

But brass tacks here, there is a toxic femininity, and this impulse is it—all of life cannot return to the womb. It’s a physical impossibility, and even if it weren’t, for anyone not an infant, the womb would be a prison, not a space of nurturing.

The deep, pained pull toward always being and doing things “the same as each other” and “together,” the unbound desire for consensus, the frustration at competition, at independence, at agency and different opinions—all of these seem reflective of the deep-seated desire to recapture a lost unity that can never be again.

Life, in other words, goes on.

For boys in particular, the impulse to engulf isn’t just stifling, it’s deadly. Boys don’t have it. We don’t need it. We have neither womb nor the impulse to fill it nor the impulse to be within it. From the moment we come into existence, it is our destiny to leave the maternal milieu forever, to make a self and an identity that is our own.

We are fertile tendrils in our own right, new offshoots of humanity. We travel for adventure, materially or conceptually. We branch from the primary root and go our own way. We break new ground, forge new foundations.

As the father of a young boy, I have to say—upon reflection—that to try to pull a boy back into the womb is to try to kill him—even if he doesn’t realize it until far too late. Sad that this bit of wisdom has been lost today.

Everything important happens in California.  §

One more musing (or set of musings) for the night.

This time it’s about California.

I have a love-hate relationship with California.

Love because I have much family here, and many good memories of family here. And because the ocean is here.

Hate because every hard life lesson that I have ever managed to learn has finally stuck while I was in California. California has been the site of an awful lot of pain for me.

I only come here to be blessed or to suffer for my sins. There appears to be no in-between.

And for the first time, tonight, now, I am feeling grateful to California for that. Because to fail to be punished for one’s sins is perhaps one of the most painful and debilitating conditions in the universe.

So—here’s to you, California. You are the place that teaches me life lessons. The hard lessons. No matter how much I think I learn, I never truly learn until I come here.

Don’t get me wrong, California is a place of lies of the most seductive, devastating, and plentiful kind.

But, somehow, in that ironic, insane way that is beyond human understanding and that deeply marks the universe in which we live, that also makes California a place of deep an undavoidable truths that must be confronted if one is to grow.

Where did my first California epiphany lead? To me finally finishing my undergraduate degree after 10 years of aimless wandering. Where did my second California epiphany lead? To me going to graduate school and getting an M.A. Where did my third California epiphany lead? To me going back to graduate school, getting a Ph.D., and having two beautiful children whom I love very much.

Where does this California epiphany lead? I’m not sure just how to encapsulate it yet, though a sort of intuitive summary is below in the previous post. I suppose time will tell about how I frame it years from now.

In any case, California makes me suffer. Deeply. Existentially. That’s why I hate California with a passion. But as the (very rare) wise folk of our species know, suffering is the stuff of growth, and growth is the stuff of light.

That’s why I also love California with awe and gratitude.

They are all wrong. Every single one of them.  §

So I’m three days in to one of the strangest things I’ve ever done.

What is it?

I went on a road trip with my ex-wife when directly asked to do so for practical reasons.

Who does something like that? A fool, that’s who. One thing a fool never quite seems to do is to learn the lessons that life throws his way. I am such a fool. At times I could swear that I’ve failed to learn every major lesson life has ever tried to throw at me.

I do believe that I am terrible at learning lessons.

How strange is it?

Her boyfriend was asked along at the last minute, once the trip had already been announced to the kids so that it was too late to back out. So I am on a road trip with my ex-wife and her boyfriend.


Not that he was super-pleased about it, either. I suppose the world is full of fools like us.

— § —

I’d just like to point out that this is sort of ridiculous cabaret is where “enlightenment” and “wokeness” and “being adults” leads.

Which is why I’m off the bus.

I have been unenlightened behind the scenes for some years now, and some of my friends know, but it hasn’t quite been a public thing. The moment is right, right now, for a coming-out party. From here on out, you can regard me as:

  • Conservative
  • Traditional
  • Catholic
  • Unwoke
  • A different person than I was for years

Despite the foolishness, there are some things I’m glad of on this trip:

  • Glad to spend time with my children
  • Glad to be of service
  • Glad to have a moment to get to know their mother’s boyfriend better
  • Glad to have the extra nudge needed to get me to really embrace what I really think

And what I really think is that everyone who tries to separate the world into spheres of “adult” and “child” basically has dirty laundry that they’re trying desperately to launder.

Here’s a bit of a bomb:

  • What’s fit for children is fit for adults.
  • What isn’t fit for children isn’t fit for adults unless time-honored tradition (i.e. thousands of years) says otherwise.

The world of “adults” and “adulting” is basically a world full of people who are desperately trying to stop rejecting themselves for the ugliness that they can see only too well in the world around them and in the lives that they lead.

— § —

Hate me all you want. I’m okay.

I’ve been hated. I’ve been hated, intimately for years on end. I am generally immune to hate. That’s another thing I’m thankful for.

— § —

When I was a kid, people used to say that when in doubt, the right thing was simply to do “the right thing.”

Years of education tried to persuade me that this phrase was naive. It worked, for a good long time. And then, finally, a few years ago, it didn’t.

Doing the right thing is, in fact, a thing. A thing that a vanishingly small number of people actually do, but a thing nonetheless.

In our society today, everyone has let themselves off the hook, for everything.

I’m not here to condemn or call anyone out. Only to say that I don’t believe that it works.

Oh, people may try to let themselves off the hook. They’ll read books. Attend therapy. Talk to friends. Adopt a fancy new age philosophies or eastern religions or organic vitamins that have nothing to do with their culture or actual science and that they only barely understand anyway.

Yes, I’m essentially describing the entire Western world at this point.

But they know. They all know.

That’s why they have to keep pointedly “letting themselves off the hook” every single day. Why they’re always trying to find new ways to let themselves off the hook.

Because without even having to think very deeply about it, they understand intuitively that, despite best efforts, they are still in fact “on the hook” in every way.

Sure, you can try to let yourself off the hook—but everyone knows better than that, deep down. Everyone is the progeny of a deeper truth and reality, one that stretches back to time immemorial.

— § —

Oh yes, there is truth.

It’s not “your” truth, and it’s not “my” truth.

You see, it isn’t the truth that becomes an orphan once someone stops believing in it…

— § —

Strange. Yes, I’ve done something strange. I’m having a strange week. It may as well be in Los Angeles, the strangest place on earth.

Judge? We are all called to judge.

That’s what it means to be the kinds of creatures that we are. To fail to judge is to fail to live up to our essence and purpose. We are creatures with judgment, first and foremost.

— § —

There are approximately zero good people left. I’m trying to increase that number by one—just the fool in the corner here, who does foolish things, trying to be better. Feel free to judge me, only please tell me of your judgment—otherwise, it’s all for naught.

Sometimes you travel to Venice Beach and meet your exhaustion face-to-face.  §

There are three kinds of people on Venice Beach.

  1. Tourists (blind)
  2. Broken people (can see only through a glass darkly)
  3. Commuters / people passing through (blind)

— § —

Things seen on Venice Beach after hours:

  • A scruffy, middle-aged man walking a husky
  • A lone cigarette butt in a sidewalk crack
  • A chopped off pineapple top
  • Two lesbians wearing neon colors and talking about restaurant food
  • A forsaken tennis racket and a split tennis ball
  • A lone cop sitting in a cop car reading a book
  • Me

— § —

Some Americans stereotype Europeans as not ever wanting to bathe. This is of course untrue. There are actually two kinds of Europeans:

  • Those who never bathe
  • Those who always bathe, as in as soon as the damp wears off, they’re hopping back in for “a quick shower” again

There doesn’t seem to be much in between.

— § —

Innocence, once lost, can never be regained.

People imagine that this is a one shot deal, a saying about the end of childhood. In truth, it applies to a great many things, over and over, throughout entire lifetimes.

It’s another way of saying that time moves only in one direction and death lies at the end for everyone.

— § —

Life is about making compromises.

Most of them are compromises you never though you’d make, and that you’d have sworn—as a young person—that you’d never, ever, ever make.

Every situation and choice for young folk is context-free. They don’t have enough life under their belt yet to understand just what the accumulation of life means for a person, how the larger and larger circle of what you are and can’t afford to lose means a smaller and smaller list of hills where one can reasonably plant one’s “die here” flag.

When the end is closer than the beginning is, it’s a lot harder to say you’ll die for this or that position.

I first read Don Quixote when I was in grammar school.  §

Is it possible to have writers’ block for months?

Probably not. What you see here is a failure of courage.

I’ve been having one of those periods in life during which the courage to write fails me. You find yourself trapped between telling the truth, which makes for better writing, but can be very painful and not a little bit boring, and not telling the truth, at which point there’s really no point in putting words down anyway.

The truth? I won’t get to all of it. But but maybe there’s a bargain to be struck, a compromise, a partial deployment.

— § —

A knight escorts his queen through a high mountain pass atop which a voracious dragon lives. His mission is nothing more and nothing less than to achieve her safe passage.

They approach; they are seen. The inevitable ensues. They make haste and the knight fights valorously in rearguard action, maintaining position between predator and queen, who runs breathlessly ahead.

It is only the knight’s presence and continued fight that preserves life and limb, but the knight cannot hold out forever . At length, he will lose, and be torn apart. But perhaps by then the queen will have escaped.

I am the knight. My children are the queen.

— § —

The largest tree in my yard, which is very large indeed, is dead. The lawn is destroyed because the underground sprinkling system leaks badly enough to damage the house’s foundation if left on, but is buried deeply enough to be unserviceable without heavy equipment.

Patio is rotting. Supports of patio and carport are rusting. Windows leak and are becoming difficult to keep together. One of two furnaces is out of service. Basement is now partially asbestos-free but remains unusable. Interior of house requires painting. Wiring is suspect. Bathrooms require refinishing. Plumbing is suspect.

I could try to find a way to come up with tens of thousands to invest in the house, but the house is not mine and at some point I will likely have to leave it; such an investment is difficult to justify. On the other hand, there is no one else that will come up with tens of thousands to invest in the house if I don’t.

Car is aging and transmission shows signs of typical wear. Seats are cracking. Suspension is failing. I could try to find a way to acquire a new, far better one, but is that the wisest course of action when the house is as it is?

Student loans remain as large as ever and will not be retired before I die, so it is difficult to be motivated to make “progress” on them. I could pay two years’ entire salary and not retire them. So where’s the motivation to spend an “extra” several hundred here or there? It feels like burning money.

Alimony payments remain an albatross. Working at foreign employment, healthcare costs remain high.

Divorce remains the same intractable situation it always has been and always will be. The project to ensure the best possible environment and developmental situation for my children remains a difficult and vexing one. Disagreements about childrearing inevitably remain, and must be managed without breaking peace.

Age continues to progress. Infirmities continue to progress. I cannot do the things I did when I was thirty, much less the things I did when I was twenty. Mental fatigue is no longer the issue; physical durability is.

Social life is difficult. There is virtually no subject about my life that I want to discuss, with anyone—because it is uncouth to go on at length about your problems, because it is tiring to have to think about them out loud, and because there is virtually no way to avoid them.

What can be afforded? Both everything and nothing. There is no good answer. When can I host guests? Now I suppose, but properly, never. When can I get away for activities? I can’t. When will any of these things change or make sense? They won’t. There is a strange, surreal substance to it all.

— § —

There is no moment of the day, apart from moments at work, during which I am not either conjuring with one of the innumerable intractable and unsolvable problems that I face or during which I am not effectively hiding under my desk.

The workday, ironically, has become escapism. At work, I am competent and I know what to do.

Neither holds true outside of working hours.

Do I talk about this? To anyone? Certainly not. Particularly not to my children, who deserve, after everything, a sense of security. And not with my ex, because it’s just not on. And not with my closest friends, who know all of it.

Men aren’t particularly helped by talking as women are. Talking doesn’t solve any of the problems; it just sucks time away from any attempts to mitigate and manage them. Talk isn’t just cheap; talk is destructive.

Yes, at times I’m quite lonely, but this mere fact is not its own solution, as so many presume. Things happen for reasons. To alter them, the reasons, too, must be altered.

— § —

How did I get here?

There is no one wrong or fateful decision.

I’ve reached the age at which “you’ll understand when you’re older” makes a kind of sense to me. Life is infinitely complex, things accumulate and interact with one another.

I went to grad school. Twice. I committed myself to an academic career. Then, I didn’t and got married and had children. Again I didn’t when I got divorced; I stayed where I was to parent. Do I regret any of those decisions? No. Nothing was, in particular, a bad decision.

What was bad was all of them together.

Could it have been avoided?

And me still be me? I think not. Maybe this is what is meant by “destiny.”

The die being cast isn’t fate, nor is it any one point of inflection. The die being cast is yourself, not yourself as a momentary quantity, but yourself as a tendency and as a trajectory over time.

It’s hard to see how any of it could have been different, without my having been someone else to begin with.

— § —

What now?

I need to learn to do new things that I haven’t done before.

Hire people to do things. Start businesses. Invest money, perhaps. I didn’t learn how to do any of these things in the lower-middle class family that raised me.

In fact, the values were all precisely opposite to these.

Don’t hire people; always do it yourself. Don’t risk your time and money on a business, when most of them fail; find a good employer, earn their loyalty, and climb the ranks. Don’t invest money, it isn’t safe; put it in a bank and let it stay there so that it will be available once you inevitably need it.

I’m not sure whether it’s that these strategies aren’t viable any longer, whether it’s that they are methods for remaining trapped in a precarious existence and always have been, or whether it’s that they simply aren’t reasonable for me, in my particular life.

What I do know is that I have long struggled to move beyond them. Not as a matter of principle or fear, but as a matter of knowledge.

How, precisely, do you hire someone to work on your yard? And what sort of someone do you hire, and for which tasks? And where do you find them? And what does it cost? And what is involved? And what parts will I be responsible for, and what parts will they be responsible for?

Is this what is meant by people that “never became adults?”

But if so, isn’t it true that for some of us, the previous generation also “never became adults?” Or is it simply that the postwar form of “make due adulthood” is no longer adulthood, has passed into anachronism?

— § —

I took a radical step and cleaned those windows that I swore I’d never clean.

I do miss the view that I had before—the view of essences and of implications. Instead now what I have is a kind of antiseptic clarity.

Consider it to be a spell, an attempt at magic; what is needed now is not just the evocation of, but the arrival of antiseptic clarity.

— § —

So here it is. For the first time in months, I’ve written something, given myself permission to write something, mustered enough courage to write something.

There are so many, many things that I am fighting, and so many ways in which the fight cannot be indefinitely sustained.

I’ll suspect die young. I’ve always suspected it, strangely.

But perhaps I’ll manage to shepherd my children over the mountain pass before that happens, and to leave with them forever the frozen image of the fight being fought with determination, whether or not with skill, and to also leave behind for them to discover someday a few relics that were on my person at the time.

I’m very, very far from home. And I am not well-acquainted with dragons as a species. I fight because under such circumstances, there is nothing else to do.

Legacies aren’t something you’re meant to think about in your ‘40s unless you’re very wealthy and have been thinking about them since your teens, since in such families they’re a practical, everyday, intergenerational matter.

But I think about my legacy every minute of every day.

Right now, today, included.

Online dating doesn’t even get started.  §

Some people ask me why I don’t date. Here’s how it typically goes when—every now and then—I decide to visit a site and start looking at photos or profiles:

Fuck you.
Fuck you.
Holy shit FUCK YOU.
No way, fuck you.
OMG fuck you.
Wow, I bet your parents hate you, fuck you.
I can tell you’re a terrible person in one photo! Fuck you!
Hmm, you seem nice. Owait, just read your profile. FUCK YOU.

And so on.

They’re all terrible people. Judging a book by its cover? If someone makes the effort to put assholery on the cover, you have to take them at their word. They went to the trouble, after all. Just once, show me a humble, unassuming, regular person and I’ll give them the humble, unassuming, and regular award.

Look, I’m in marketing. I’m a marketing professional. I know nonsense when I see it.

What I can’t figure out is why so many people try to use “I’m a badly behaved jerk with an attitude!” as their sales pitch.

Take your narcissism and your attitude and go buy a dog. You’re going to need it. Come see me when you’re 75 and all alone. I’ll give you some advice at that time.

(It will be: FUCK YOU.)

The “it’s an unjust world” crowd is more right than they know.  §

Our most recent dark age begins when the generation before mine, finding themselves in shock—perhaps because of the Cold War and its many hot wars, or perhaps because of the immediately prior changes that Walter Benjamin outlines—decides that they hate God, and are henceforth going to tweak his nose by making it their collective life’s work to erect a hell on Earth.

There’s no particular need to argue the existence of God here, and this isn’t a theological question anyway.

One of the saddest of all metaphysical truths is the fact that no matter what doubts may exist about heaven, hell is always eminently attainable, and rapidly so.

And thus we find ourselves where we are—hurtling down the tracks toward it in the space of a few decades, with the boomers and those that follow in their affective foosteps leaning out the windows of each car and screaming petulantly into the wind, in hopes of further offending whatever may exist that can plausibly be offended (they stopped believing in God once they had fully sated their belief in him by rebelling, like adolescent children, against him).

No, theology isn’t needed for endless suffering. Only for the achievement of happines.

The fact that you don’t remember doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  §

So this has been my view two or sometimes three (or even more) nights every week for four years now. I don’t even think of coming to the dojang as “a thing” any longer—I don’t notice it at all unless we don’t go.

Which we haven’t for a little while because of end-of-year school stuff and then the Utah state taekwondo championships tournament.

© Aron Hsiao / 2019

When we’re away for a while, I notice it.

— § —

Thing is, I’m probably more comfortable here than I am almost anywhere else. The people are decent people, and I consider them to be my friends. The place is clean. The environment is generally wonderful for kids.

And there’s no work here. Or if there is, it’s limited to tablet-work.

At home?

I live in an old home that I also work in.

Home is where there is:

  • pollution and decay

  • environmental danger

  • long hours of work

  • bills to pay and schedules to meet

I didn’t have any notion when we started bringing the kids here that it would turn into such a life-changing thing, or that our dojang would become the place in the world where I’m most able to relax.

I doubt they have any idea either. I wonder what they’d think.

— § —

School ends in a couple of weeks.

There is still snow on the mountains.

Is that typical? I can’t remember. Maybe I’ve never bothered to notice. For all the musing we do about the shortness of life and the things we’ll miss when we’re gone, there are a great many details with which we never manage to acquaint ourselves.

But that’s a digression. Summer is here and winter is still here as well. Of course the boundary is more a matter of imagination than reality, like every boundary everywhere. Post-structuralism (though I hesitate to say “post-structuralists”) figured all of this out years ago.

But we don’t like to realize that because we don’t like thinking about what it means for our own lives and the way in which we imagine birth and death to be separated by a vast gulf in whose presumption of durability we invest rather a great deal.

— § —

It was late at night, and I somehow stumbled across the video section at The Atlantic.

© Aron Hsiao / 2016

I watched a short film about a family that makes wasabi in Japan.

I watched a short film about a the everyday life of a woman decades after losing her son to a rare disease when he was very young.

I watched a short film about the grown son of a Buddhist monk struggling to find his own path in life.

I watched and watched and watched these beguiling little films until the wee hours of the morning, every one of them a labor of love.

They seduce me so because I have the same impulse, if not the same aptitude and output. So many years carrying cameras everywhere. So many years tapping out little posts like this one into the ether.

Nobody to see them but—perhaps someday, if they’re interested—my own offspring.

Yet I can’t think of anything in my life more important.

— § —

You’d imagine that after all these years, and given my background in tech, I’d have found a good way to make posts while on the go. For example, while at the dojang thinking about a handful of independent shorts I’d recently viewed.

Yes and no.

I was an early smartphone adopter and an early tablet adopter, but I’m still looking for the grail workflow that will let me post my thoughts with blissful transparency, as though I were thinking things directly onto the page.

Maybe that’ll finally be in next year’s feature set.

— § —

They say that every day is decision day, and that’s true, but the truth of the statement doesn’t do much to make life easier, or to make decisions any better.

All the wisdom in the world will get you nowhere unless it’s your own wisdom. Most of the time, even that’s not enough; we’re compelled by forces we barely understand to gradually assemble and live in selves we can often barely tolerate.

Then, the marketers turn up after the fact and tell us that if only we’d read the book, we’d be millionaires who’d never hurt anyone by now, and since there’s still time to get the book, we can live the dream the next time around.

Young people fall for this all the time. They fail to realize that the people who love them don’t particularly want them to pursue “self-improvement” so much as kind and generous participation and learning—mere everyday growth, not in pursuit of achievement but rather in pursuit of little smiles and nostalgia-inspiring moments.

© Aron Hsiao / 2016

I still fall for it sometimes myself. I start reading something and it seems so plausible that I spend the night reading all of it. I go to sleep in an ecstasy of triumph at having figured life out.

The next morning, it’s only after coffee and a couple hours’ delay that I realize I wasted another evening trying to “improve” myself when in fact I ought to have spent it living.

— § —

The problem with spending time living is that it brings one closer to dying.

I think under the surface of it all, people imagine that if you can claim to not have properly begun yet, someone will give you extra time at the other end of things, so it’s in your best interest to delay as long as possible until you’re really ready to make a splash.

I’m not sure whether people would be twice as interesting or not interesting at all if things worked that way, but they don’t so it’s all academic anyway.

— § —

Taekwondo class is almost over. I’m supposed to be doing it too, tonight, after the kids. But I’m so worn out most Wednesdays that I just don’t. Problem is, I’m more and more “so worn out” at the end of every day. It’s not going to get any better, because I’m not going to get any younger.

It seems so incredibly implausible at 5:00, when I just want to go to bed already, to contemplate waiting through kids’ classes for an hour and a half and then producing an hour of intense physical explosion from 7:30 until 8:30 myself. When we head out the door, I honestly imagine most Wednesdays that if I tried it, I’d have a heart attack somewhere around 7:45.

But now here it is 7:25 and I’m prepping to head home—with that same old dread about all the things that await there. Now I’d rather stay here, heart attack or no.

Didn’t bring my uniform, though. One of those decisions that gets made every day. Only a few thousand of those left in my life, when you do the math.

— § —

Life is so short.

So very, very short.

Oh, to know what to do once you catch the mailbox you’re chasing.  §

Someone’s sent me a letter. Possibly some time ago, as I never check my now-lockable mailbox. Because no-one ever sends me letters.

Yes, in case you caught that bit, I did acquire and install a lockable mailbox, several years ago. Because my mail was regularly being stolen (along with a number of other things that I won’t otherwise mention just now). Funny thing, the person my locking mailbox primarily seems to keep separated from my mail ever since then is—me.

But I digress. A letter. And a book.

I don’t know if I’ll read the book. Still reflecting on things. But the letter itself is very nice; it must be. Look, I’m writing about it. And I haven’t been writing about anything—anything at all—for some time now.

— § —

Unrelated but related.

Men are lonely. I’m not entirely sure whether this is a matter of our particular culture and epoch or whether this is something to do with testosterone and garages. But we are lonely, lonely creatures.

Okay, I lie. I am sure. Not in any epistemic way, but rather as a matter of the puffy white clouds of my own opinion-making, which (refreshingly) sail the skies of my life again since I left academics and no longer have to prove everything with reference to (always obnoxious) “intellectual giants” or (even more obnoxious) “highly cited articles.”

But yes, as I was saying, we are lonely, lonely creatures. And it’s at this point that all of the women in the room start on about sharing feelings and finding connection and all of that sort of thing, but the fact is that all of that really misses the point. It’s part and parcel of the problem, in fact.

If we could share feelings and make connections and so on and not be lonely, we’d all have done it already. Therapy, after all, runs like water in our culture, and very public (and often entertaining and witty) advice along these lines doubly so.

But being lonely doesn’t come from making no connections. We make connections and we’re still lonely.

— § —

I remember the last time I cried as a child, and the first time I was unable to cry, despite very much wanting to. I simply—couldn’t. I nudged all the right muscles and made all the right facial expressions and tried a heave or three, but nothing would happen. It was infuriating.

It was, in fact, the terrible moment at which I knew that for the rest of my life, “release” of any kind would be a limited resource. It was the moment at which I caught my first young glimpse of the concept of “destiny,” and of my destiny as a man in particular.

No one ever told me not to cry. Quite the opposite, in fact. I had that very modern, forward-thinking, highly educated, very liberal WASP mother who reassured me to no end that sharing feelings was right and that it was very good for boys to cry.

Women think boys don’t cry because we’re trying to impress them. Or ourselves. Or because we were beaten by a toxically-masculine brute at some point, or teased relentlessly on the playground for it.

In fact, many of us can’t because we just—can’t.

I suspect it has something to do with XY and hormones. It’s probably a reasonably good evolutionary adaptation. If your job for the species is to ward off predators double the size of any community member and to fight off invading armies of clever homo sapiens sapiens opponents, it’s really an “all-hands-on-deck” sort of thing you’re up to.

The jobs of men have traditionally been the jobs of pain, suffering, and early death on behalf of others—so that those others, offspring amongst them, can thrive.

Breaking into sobs when things really, really suck may be good for the soul but I imagine it’s an evolutionary dead end in comparison to those who aren’t so encumbered.

But of course that’s a just-so story based on nothing but my own surmise.

— § —

Time is passing.

I’ve written that phrase so many times here and elsewhere that it’s a terrible cliché for me. Yet it is. And more. More than ever.

I am grappling, in fact, with the problem of mortality, because I can smell it in the air.

When I was younger I absolutely reveled in the “half as long, twice as bright” thing. “A pirate’s life for me!” and all of that. I did not live with longevity in mind. I wish I could say that I lived well, but I can’t honestly say that, either.

In any case, parenthood changes things. “Half as long, twice as bright” is not good for the kids.

I am overtaken with immense parental guilt about my own mortality and the many, many ways in which I may have hastened it when I was younger and likely continue to hasten it today. I’m trying not to be obsessive about it and, for the most part, succeeding, but the reason for that success is more analagous to the reason I never cry than it is to any particular substantive state of mental healthiness.

— § —

This brings me to a strange kind of empathy that I have begun to feel for my elders and forebears—an empathy that continues to be comingled with resentment and shock.

Because of course they built this world. This world of nuclear arsenals and global warming and asbestos and runaway capitalism and arid secularism and so on. For so many years, what I mostly felt about them was a kind of naive rage. How, after all, dare they? How dare they and also have us?

The selfishness!

That tapered off somewhere in my thirties and I generally forgot about all of that. I think that’s what one’s thirties are generally for—forgetting things.

And now, the forties, in which one’s purpose is to remember all of the things that one has never yet known. Including the fact—in my case, at least—that I am now my forebears. I now inadvertently destroy the health and happiness of my own progeny with nothing but the best of intentions, just as they did.

Innocence isn’t just at a premium; it’s both a scurrilous fable and the essence of all being at once.

— § —

We were talking tonight, the kids and I, about dog cognition.

We were veering perilously close to Sapir-Whorf territory, but what can you do? Dog cognition is dog cognition and in comparison to the human phenomenological universe, Sapir-Whorf seems both pedestrian and obvious rather than fraught.

But as the children wisely pointed out—or is that understood—it’s difficult for me to understand the difference any longer as a parent, which really deserves a post of its own but won’t get one—underneath it all, we humans all have dog cognition as well.

And, in part, it’s what must be recovered if one is to survive middle age and the golden years without snuffing oneself out.

It’s the best substitute for the ability to cry that a man is likely to come up with—that subverbal and in fact subcognitive level of stimulus-response that is the human equivalent of (to use a phrase that I found surprising and delightful and sad all at once when I first heard it) “the pure, unironic joy of being a dog.”

Some men get it from motorcycles. Others from guns. Others from sanding boats. I myself get it from wristwatches. And sunroofs. And, say, getting unexpected letters in the mail.

When the going gets tough, you are able to see evil.  §

It’s been a while now that I haven’t been able to write a damned thing. How many times have I started a post, then stopped? Twenty? Forty?

You can tell just by looking at this space. It’s empty. It’s bereft. It’s arid.

But that’s where I’ve been, too. Empty. Bereft. Arid. Yeah, you could say there are some problems. Okay, you could say there are a shitload of problems, mostly related to middle age and life as a single parent. And a bunch of other stuff. But for now, those will do.

— § —

So let’s see, what’s been going on?

House. The house isn’t mine. And it’s falling apart. And I’m pouring money into it. And it isn’t mine. And I should feel grateful for it. And it’s falling apart. And I’m pouring money into it. And all of this in very not comfortable ways, since it was built in the 1970s. Draw your own conclusions about what that means.

History and human muzzles. Speaking of, I can’t say a damned thing. That’s the reason for the disappearance of 75 percent of all posts. I can’t ever say a damned thing about a damned thing because I’m divorced and that makes everything in life (a) shit and (b) difficult and (c) painful and (d) guilt-inducing.

Society. The other 25 percent of all posts are muzzled because I also can’t say a damned thing on account of the fact that I’m not a tenured academic somewhere like I once planned, but am rather working on the open market where everything I do and say becomes a part of my value proposition, and it’s got to be a good one if I’m going to stay employed and continue to progress. I won’t say more about that, for obvious reasons.

Market. Speaking of, I have to stay employed and continue to progress because the debt load from years of graduate school followed by divorce is crushing. My ex is buying a house. People look at me like I’m irresponsible on account of having saved no money. But here’s the thing. I’ve paid for three whole cars, completely in the past four years. How many other people have paid for three entire cars in four years? That’s where my money went. My attorney’s fees are all paid off. That’s where my money went. Other debts that I took on as a part of the divorce are gradually being paid off. That’s also where the money went. But where’s it not going? Student loan debt. And buying a house. That’s what my ex gets to do.

Meaning. This is really all about the divorce again, but the thing is that it’s hard to be yourself or to explore the things you’d like to explore as an individual when you’re divorced because every last thing you do is scrutinized and anything that you do that deviates from recent history has the potential to cause trouble and causing trouble is the last thing that you want to do when you’re as empty, bereft, and arid as I have been. So there are things I’d like to do that cost nothing that I haven’t done, and that seriously gets my goat.

Age. Do other people feel—like, literally feel—the life force draining out of them with each passing day? I feel that in me. Yes, I know they say that everyone is slowly dying, but I can feel it, day by day and it sucks. No, it’s not going to happen in the next year or probably even in the next ten years, but I can feel it coming. It’s not indeterminate. And the amount of guilt that I feel about that—about a potential departure—is crippling as a parent.

Some of this is all in my head. Hell, all of it is all in my head. All of everything is all in everyone’s head, because in fact phenomenology wins if we’re all human, which we are, and that’s that.

— § —

Mostly I just hate all the things that, for a while, I loved.

I hate you, Foucault.

I hate you, academics.

I hate you, atheists.

I hate you, enlightened people.

I hate you, time.

Okay, I don’t know if I really hate these things. Because I don’t actually know what hate is. I don’t frankly know what anything is. I am coming of age as a lost soul, which I believe is what they call a “midlife crisis.”

Mine has been going on for five years, what’s your name?

— § —

I am also at that age where I think back over a life of doing things, and I think back to a lot of the things I’ve done, and I don’t like it. Guilt. Regret. Embarrassment. Sadness. Wistfulness in a few blissful, yet still painful cases.

— § —

Also—and this is hard as well—I used to be so happy to have known so many people.

I’ve inverted on that point. I regret having known most of the people I knew in my twenties and thirties at this stage. I regret having let them into my life.

Does everyone reach middle age and feel as though they’ve lived their entire life wrong and wasted it on people who were at best pointless and at worst evil?

— § —

Somewhere along the line (guessing just where is left as an exercise to the reader), I came to believe in evil, for the first time in my life.

Nothing has been the same since.

All of this is still the Great Unwinding that follows from that. The little stageplay in which I unravel like an old sweater and then disappear in a puff of regret.

I once owned the domain regretengine.org.

Ironic that I let it lapse just before I came to need it most.

— § —

“We play at believing ourselves immortal. We delude ourselves in the appraisal of our own works and in our perpetual misappraisal of the works of others. See you at the Nobel, writers say, as one might say: see you in hell.”


— § —

He found out he was going to die and wrote a masterpiece to honor his children. Would that I could do the same. But I suspect that when the time comes, I won’t. And that alone makes me want to wring my neck.

Is posting a blog post like this a sin? Probably.

But it is what it is.

When Notre Dame burns, new converts are gained.  §

Today’s burning of Notre Dame reveals just how profoundly we have dispensed with our imagination of—and vocabulary for—the numinous.

To read and hear much of the coverage, one would think that these “experts” and “public figures” feel nothing that I do about it. And maybe they don’t.

“…a historic building…” one said.
“…an important landmark…” another said.
“…obviously a religious building…” said another, stupidly.

Soulless automatons that have been programmed to reject the concept of the soul cannot possibly comment on the affliction of the soul of our civilization, or on the pain felt by millions of souls at watching it.

Philistines, all of them, everywhere. That’s what it was in academics, too. Everywhere.

“Of course, it’ll be rebuilt again—and better and more beautiful than ever, because now it will be made with modern materials and modern techniques,” I’ve read several times tonight.

© Jorge Láscar / 2014

I’ve also read several variations on, “It’s a building. Buildings come. Buildings go. That’s what happens. And let’s face it, it was an old building, obsolete and precious.”

Someone even said that Disney built better and more interesting things.

— § —

I have been on the fence for a long time, back and forth on the question of religion.

I’m not on the fence any longer. You can think what you will of religion. What cannot, however, be denied, is that only religion appears able to grasp—much less to preserve and to convey—the idea that there is more to life than a prosaic plod through economics and the intricate structures we’ve erected to venerate economics.

Birth happens. Death happens. Things matter, and not merely because they matter to me. Or to you.

All of this—the cars and the grades and the textiles and the plastic packaging and the wages and the elections and the battles for justice—all of this is so much pointless noise.

Everyone ends and will end in same way: in a final, eternal confrontation with the numinous.

If only religion is able to substantively reflect on or acknowledge this fact, then religion is where I must go.

In real life, you don’t always come up smelling like roses.  §

It’s been weeks since I’ve posted anything.

In general, I haven’t been posting a lot in recent months. There’s a reason for this. As time passes, I realize that these days I often hesitate to post if things aren’t going well.

There are always things in life that you can’t really talk about—that just aren’t things you can expect people to make conversation with. We live in a culture in which, despite all claims to the contrary, it’s not socially acceptable to traffic in sob stories.

People only say in the abstract that they’d like others to reach out to them, to talk about problems and sadnesses. In practice, as we all know, but no one can say, it borders on rude to say anything other than “Well, thanks!” in answer to the question “How are you?”

— § —

Full disclosure, I’m not sure I’m well. It’s been a trying few months, to say the least, and I can’t honestly say that things seem to be getting better.

I can’t honestly say that there are too many areas of life in which I don’t feel fairly backed into a corner.

I’m not keeping up. I’m certainly not getting ahead. I don’t entirely feel up to the job, and I’m not entirely certain I’m durable enough to do it, all things said and done.

I’m not optimistic about the future and I’m not sure what I am hoping for. That’s a dangerous position to be in.

— § —

The worst situation in life is the one in which you’re just barely hanging on.

Because when that’s the case, obviously things are not adaptive. Yet in the absence of actual failure or catastrophe, it’s hard to justify significant change—to yourself, much less to others—so you aren’t likely to do anything differently.

Yet at the same time, it’s clear once you’ve been hanging on for a while that you’re also not going to make any ground.

You’re not going to win, and you’re not going to change anything. Bad news. At least in the face of catastrophe you have no choice but to change.

“Hanging on” is a state of affairs that can go on indefinitely. For me, it’s been a good twenty years.

— § —

I need changes, but I don’t know how to make them.

I need a simpler life, but every time I try to achieve one, it seems to get more complicated.

I’m worried that I don’t see a lot of green ahead. I’m perpetually worried about what’s to come.

Still hanging on.

Responsibility and consequences are better learned about early in life.  §

I haven’t been posting much in recent months.

Things have been hard. Much stress, much fatigue. Much worry. Much guilt.

There are good moments and bad moments. Recently, there have been a lot of bad moments. I suppose I’m having a good moment, which is why I am posting. In the bad moments, I am coming to realize, I no longer post. Because my bad moments aren’t angry now like they were when I was 23. They’re just bad.

— § —

I’ve never been one to enjoy hand-to-hand combat with life.

I like hand-to-hand combat with little problems. Practical problems. Computer code. Car engines. Watch movements.

But life? Death? Familial relationships? I don’t like doing hand-to-hand combat with these things. Some people thrive on it. I don’t. I don’t like making decisions upon which the entire world seems to depend. I don’t like having the responsibility.

Over the years, I’ve learned to cope with it, but it’s not something that I’ve yet grown into. I hope that someday I do. I often recently think that if I’d had more training with responsibility as a young person—if my parents had believed in giving allowances so that kids could budget, or allowed me to play team sports, or if I’d joined the Marines or become a police officer—I’d be in a very different place in life.

But that’s not what happened. My entire childhood and youth were about being protected from taking responsibility for things. In my twenties, nobody would give me a serious job. Typical at the entry level, but it meant that nothing in particular hung on what I did.

I became an academic for twenty years. Academics is that place where you make pronouncements on all of the world’s Most Serious Topics[TM] but do so in such a way and with such a small audience that there are no consequences for any of it. Anything you do or say or think is entirely irrelevant to anyone but yourself and the people in the room with you.

It’s a way to feel important without being of any importance. A scam of a sort, if in some ways a noble one.

— § —

Now, I’m an ex-husband. A father. A critical supporter of two households. The owner of multiple pets, one of whom is very old and dying. I’m director at a startup. I routinely communicate with large audiences, and with wealthy, important individuals.

I guess this is the natural course of things, but now at nearly 43 it feels as though everything I do matters. Not just matters a little bit, but matters a lot. Everything that I do has consequences.

Lives and fortunes depend on me and the decisions that I make and the things that I do.

And it’s all new to me. I’m encountering this importance and this sense of responsibility for the first time now, in middle age. I don’t feel prepared. I wish I’d been better trained for it. I wish I’d been hardened and disciplined for it.

I used to laugh at military folk. Now I envy them. I envy the fact that they were taught to stiffen their upper lip and to make perfect hospital corners and to wake up at 4:00 am on-the-dot and to run for twenty miles at a pop, rain or shine, even when lungs are burning and legs are going to give out. I envy the fact that they were told, over and over again, that the lives of others would depend on them.

They’ve spent years having to think about all of this stuff, to learn how to do what needs to be done not just when life is smooth, but when what needs to be done is impossible.

I feel like an amateur. And I’m not emotionally ready. Nonetheless, here I am.

— § —

Navigating a marriage and a family to an end while trying to preserve the emotional health of loving children. Trying to survive financial armageddon and reach some sort of equilibrium—still not yet found. Trying to make good decisions, launch good initiatives, lead good teams, and help companies to survive so that co-workers have jobs to feed their families. Helping innocent souls to find their way toward a peaceful end, even when infirm and suffering.

These are the major components of my life over the last four years. I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, and I’m still not, but here I am living through it. Making decisions. Sometimes the right ones. Sometimes the wrong ones. Sometimes I just can’t tell.

I’m tired of mattering so much.

— § —

My emotional constitution is such that when the going gets tough, I go on autopilot. Not because my autopilot is better necessarily, but because otherwise I will be unable to cope. I’ll retreat. And when you matter, there’s no retreat.

You’ve got to try your best to do what needs to be done. Turn off your feelings so that you don’t let everything you’re holding come crashing down. And take your lumps and keep on moving when you make bad decisions. There’s no time for guilt or regret now. That will have to wait until later.

When, exactly? Later adulthood? I’m already 42. Retirement? Death?

— § —

All of this sounds very petty. Let’s be honest, it is. Generations ago, 17- and 18-year-olds flew halfway around the world and stood under the open skies of hell in trenches, eating bugs and effluence in storms of bullets, bombs, and body parts as their closest friends were torn apart beside them.

Then, they came all the way back and found ways to lead lives, live, love, and die. What have I done? Nothing. I have no grounds for complaint.

— § —

So here I sit nursing a dying dog. Trying to figure out how to think about my ex-wife’s urging that we try things again and how I ought to weigh the too-broad range of potential benefits and consequences for everyone involved. Wondering how I’m going to ever retire, or even catch up to my finances.

Wondering how it all would have been different if instead of doing everything I did—college, graduate school, marriage, kids, divorce, pets, bills, etc.—I’d joined the Marines.

— § —

Do I have anything of substance to say?

Yes. Something of substance, and shocking, too. It’s the first time I’ve told anyone, really, apart from two very old friends.

For about a year now, I’ve been toying with the idea of becoming Catholic. At the very least, I have deep regrets about my treatments of—and interactions with—religious folk in years past.

Anyone that has known me for any period of time will be shocked by this admission. I’m shocked myself. I’d never have figured myself to be a believer, and I’m still not sure that I am or ever will be.

But as I get older, I realize more and more that it’s not really about belief at all. It’s more about what’s right and proper and best, as I am beginning to realize is often the case in adult life—in real life. In the lives of the people who have some measure of stewardship for the world.

No, it’s not really about feelings or belief at all. Nothing important is.

Call me late to understanding in things that matter.