Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

Why some of us don’t date, despite the urgings of others.  §

Me: “This is amazing. Maybe one of the most beautiful, most deep things ever.”

Her: “Only you could think this way, okay? I mean seriously, like—what?! Your ideas about beautiful, deep moments are really fucking weird and sterile.”

Me: “But don’t you think—”

Her: “No. Only you would think Calculus and concrete are beautiful and deep. Seriously. Frankly, it’s frightening.”

— § —

Her: “Isn’t this the greatest moment ever? Everrr!? Wooooooooooo! Don’t you love yoga on a mountainside with friends? Best ever, ever, ever!”

Me: “It’s pretty cool! Everyone’s so happy—I think that’s awes—”

Her: “‘Pretty cool’ my ass. As usual, you make Spock look emotional. Fuck you. You don’t think this is the best moment in all of existence? This isn’t the greatest single day of your life?”

Me: “I said it was pretty cool!”

Her: “Yeah, and I said fuck you.”

— § —

This is the dynamic of every serious relationship I’ve ever had. People tell me to date. I say I’m tired. This is what I’m talking about.

What’s wrong with blogs is what’s wrong with the world.  §

One of the consequences of the “you are the product, monetize yourself” culture of social media is that everyone has become incredibly, incredibly boring.

Long ago, substantive blogs were everywhere, easy to find. Now by substantive, I mean exactly the opposite of what you think I mean. I mean blogs about people, not blogs about things. “Blog” as in “web log” as in “log.” Personal. Chronological. Interior. Unassuming.


© Aron Hsiao / 2006

Then, the culture decided that the Internet was a commercial zone, a place to make money, not a place to dwell and be and share. And blogs exploded. In both senses of the word. There became so many, many more of them, the new ones mostly crap. Meanwhile, interesting blogs and easily-discoverable paths to them were essentially annihilated.

I’m not entirely writing from ignorance here—I know that there exists a literature (mostly as blogs, naturally) on how to blog, largely oriented toward “making money with your blog”—but I haven’t read it much, if at all. Still, let me see if I can guess—from combing through blog after blog after blog these days looking for something I actually want to read—the advice that today’s bloggers are internalizing:

  • Choose one topic for your blog, and it can’t be yourself. It should be a potentially profitable interest of yours, and you should write about it, not about you. Maybe it’s fashion. Maybe it’s cooking. Maybe it’s cars. Maybe it’s LGBT rights. One topic. Be focused.

  • Never do or say anything off-putting to your readers. Don’t express strong opinions other than the relentlessly positive opinions that you already have about your one topic. Don’t get too personal. Don’t bore your reader with details about your everyday life.

  • Use stock photos, not photos from your real life. If you’re going to use photos from your real life, make sure that you take them with a high-end camera and semi-professional aspirations. Remember that your photo is the key to social media traffic and shares.

  • Speaking of, make sure that your posts are short and pithy and get right to the point. Either title them clearly with the topic of the post or with a sort of cliffhanging ethos that makes people crazy to click. Remember that you have one chance to get someone to click as you scroll through their feed.

  • Avoid big words, dependent clauses, long expositions, and long entries. Nobody wants to read these; deliver value to your reader without forcing them to do hard work. Respect their time and the fact that they’re busy. Be concise and to-the-point.

  • Make sure that your blog is presented in a polished way, and stay current with design trends. Think of yourself as aspiring to be a glossy magazine, online. Don’t be cheesy, don’t be kitschy. Be slick and deliver a fabulous product.

  • etc.

Basically, actual blogs in the way that I once understood them are now vanishingly rare, and wherever they do exist, neither search nor social media are revealing them to me.

Instead, what we’re all awash in are “blogs” that are relentless, mind-numbing, generic, unimportant advertisements—directly for a series of products (books, clothes, garden products, food products, recipes, whatever) and indirectly for a person. Generally all that we know about the person from these ads is that they are, of course:

  • Either an expert or an enthusiast about their One Topic[TM]

  • Veterans at writing about this topic, having done so since Some Past Date[TM]

  • Eager to make the world and your life better with their One Topic[TM]

  • Hosting a webinar/podcast/meetup/live broadcast/whatever at Some Future Date[TM]

  • Eager to have you visit their Blog Store[TM] for cool/fun/edgy Merch[TM] featuring them

  • Personally identifed on the ubiquitous About Page[TM] as some hip term like baby mama/bearded hipster/etc. and in their spare time doing hip, active-person things like yoga/mountain climbing/skydiving/motivational speaking because they want to make a Positive Difference[TM]

I just can’t read this crap. I can’t appreciate this crap, I can’t care about this crap, I can’t abide this crap. It’s all so much cyberjunk. Trying to find good blogs is like going to a multilevel marketing conference. Everyone is trying to sell themselves, impress you with their product line, and get you to join their downline as a rabid consumer of their products, their brand, and their breakout-success persona.

All I want to read about is what people did last night that wasn’t commercial in nature and isn’t breathlessly hyped, alongside inspired reflection or conversation. I want to be able to scroll through their blog and see lots of different thoughts and ideas, in lots of different genres. I don’t want to see post after post after post on one thing, beaten to death, whatever that thing is: book reviews, film factoids, lawn mower tips, whatever.

The joy of reading blogs once was that you could discover a world full of interesting people thinking thoughts you’d never have had yourself. Now reading blogs is like browsing the glossy magazine section at Barnes and Noble. It’s antiseptic, unedifying, exploitative, an inch deep (if that), and cringe-worthy.

Listen, “bloggers” out there, there are some things you should know:

  • Your site about cupcakes or hairstyling or crafts for kids is utterly, utterly generic, uninspired, and one of at least ten thousand basically identical others, no matter what your topic.

  • All of them have exactly the same misguided dream as you—to somehow turn this intellectually and emotionally lazy stream of iterated tripe into a “day job” as an “authoritative blogger” or whatever.

  • You are not making the world a better place. If you want to make the world a better place, share yourself with us, not a stream of shiny bullshit designed to monetize us.

  • Sure, you may “build an audience.” But if your audience consists entirely of a buying public, there’s nothing about a blogging “day job” that’s any different from a day job in sales, and you can make a hell of a lot more money at the latter, and at least see people face-to-face besides.

  • I want to love you. I want to love everyone. But this crap mostly makes me hate you.

I suppose this has turned into a rant. But seriously, all I want is to read people writing about themselves. Their real selves. I am tired of feeling like no matter where I go online, I am part of someone’s anemic pipe-dream of a revenue stream. I just want to read about you. I want to read about your socks on Monday, about your cat on Tuesday, about your trip to the Poconos on Wednesday, about your son’s wedding on Thursday, about the great Indian food you had on Friday, about mowing the lawn on Saturday, and about how rainy days make you feel on Sunday.

The problem with all of this is that I may be the only one who wants this. And if that’s so, I think I’ve found the problem with humanity right now.

Epilogue: Things like this are precisely the problem. These are the people who are destroying all that is meaningful in the world.

Writing is what some people do while they’re busy making other plans.  §

I’ve been writing here for nineteen years now, and writing in general for a lot longer than that. Most of the time it doesn’t even occur to me that “writing” isn’t a hobby that everyone pursues. I think I generally tend to imagine that everyone sits around writing all the time, when they’re not doing their jobs or out having drinks.

But I guess they don’t.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

I still have boxes of loose paper, torn from notebooks of all sizes, filled with words in ink of all colors—blue, black, red, green—written on throughout junior high and high school. I’d sit around as a teenager—you know how teens do—everyone on in someone’s bedroom, cross-legged and doing nothing in particular as a group—and scribble out poems and paragraphs of random reflection. I’d tear them out of the notebook and hand them to people sitting right next to me. It was like what people say happens now, with people texting to each other while sitting next to each other, only I did it with paper because texting didn’t exist yet.

I never wanted to be a writer or thought I’d be a writer, and yet somehow at the same time it was never in question. No matter what I’ve officially done in my career—where I’ve worked, what my official job responsibilities were—through tech and consulting and research and teaching and public relations and e-commerce and all of the rest—the plain fact of the matter is that in day-to-day practice, in every role, I’ve always ended up working as a writer.

You end up doing what you know how to do, because doing what you know how to do is how you solve the problems that you encounter. When all you have is a hammer, you treat everything as a nail, even if it isn’t a nail and you know damned well it isn’t a nail.

— § —

It took me a long time—well into my thirties—to realize that I was “a writer” and say it and own it.

This is because I’d always reserved the term in my imagination for people of far more rarefied stock than I am. People who create things that other people want to read—who inspire them and take away their pain and present to them their life stories and so on. Novelists. Poets. Essayists.

I’ve never been any of those things, so the idea that I was a writer didn’t occur to me for many years. Yes, I’d admit to people, I spent most of my time writing, both at work and at home and at leisure, but it wasn’t as though I wrote things that mattered. I just write because I have to—because it’s practical, not because I have something to add to the world.

Sometimes I imagine in secret that maybe, just maybe someday I’ll have something to add to the world. But a sober mind realizes by the time they’re in their forties that whatever they are already is likely what they’re destined to be. So probably what I’m destined to be is a writer of the practical variety, rather than of the somehow priestly, soul-saving variety.

— § —

Crediting all of this, it’s no accident that this blog is here like I used to say it was.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s something I just started and I haven’t bothered to kill it off yet. Force of habit. It’s mostly just a long, slow-moving accident. My blog doesn’t exist for any particular reason, really.”

Not true. It exists because I write and I’ve always written and I can’t stop and I’ll likely never stop, and it’s how I relate to the world, and a big component of how I relate to other people and to myself. So the moment the technology emerged and began to weave itself into everyday life, it was inevitable that I’d adopt it and make use of it habitually, like I used to do (and still often do) with pen and paper.

I post because I have to. Because it is in my genetic makeup to feel that somehow sitting down and writing will make things better, is a path to whatever I want or need or whatever relief I’m seeking at the moment. Not that it is; very often I don’t feel all that much better after I write. And I’ve forgotten ninety-nine percent of anything I’ve ever written. But that doesn’t do anything to curb the impulse, the compulsion.

Some days, it’s just a vague urge that gnaws at me throughout the day until finally in the evening sometime I sit down to do it. Sometimes I don’t even have a single thought in my head, yet my fingers are itching to type. Those are usually pretty terrible posts, but I make them anyway, to scratch the itch.

Other days, I make one post and I’m in a kind of pain because I really have twenty or thirty things I’d like to reflect on and say here, but it feels somehow too much to make twenty or thirty posts in a day, so I allow myself one and maybe if I’m particularly itchy, two or three, but that’s it. And the rest of the things I’m thinking end up being like children who were conceived but never born, the starts of long, interesting futures to come that instead fade away and disappear from the record and from memory forever.

— § —

It pains me in a way that so many young people now do all of their communicating and thinking on social media. Young people who may be writers at heart, who may have the same urge, the same impulse, the same wiring.

Because social media isn’t writing and can’t be writing. It’s too brief and too ephemeral and too performative; it foreshortens things and grinds them with lapping paste until the superfluous edges are gone, yes, but much of the substance is, too. Instead of finding a voice, they merely manufacture a look, albeit one finished in abbreviated prose.

But it’s not the same thing at all, and they are not feeding their souls.

The same technoculture that has offered me yet another space to write and write more for two decades is ironically killing the same proclivity and release in others, who have no idea that a part of themselves is withering. Does it matter at all in the end, if they don’t know about it anyway? If a tree falls in the forest but no one is around to hear, does it make a sound?

— § —

What is this post about, and why am I making it? I don’t know. I woke up unexpectedly, before dawn, re-watched a few fragments from My So-Called Life for no reason that I can put my finger on, sat down, and started typing.

So I’ll just leave this here. It’s Leapdragon post number 3,301, by the way.

This is for all of you. Sorry I’m not there, and that you’re not here.  §

I miss all of the people I don’t know.

The people that I should have met but I didn’t because I didn’t “get involved,” didn’t “put myself out there,” didn’t “go when everyone else was going,” didn’t feel like they were worth knowing and so I don’t. I’m sorry to all of you. Probably there were things you needed from me. I’m fairly sure there were also things that I needed from you.


© Aron Hsiao / 2004

Also the people that I used to know but that I don’t know now, because of shit that happened. Some of the shit is yours. Some of the shit is mine. In the moment, shit always seems tremendously important. Okay, let’s be real—in the moment, shit is tremendously important because the day-to-day relationships of your life shape the way that your life works, and what problems you actually have to logistically deal with, and what bills you actually have to pay, and so on. So maybe it’s unavoidable that shit happens and friendships end as a result.

But it’s also real to say that later on when you can elide all of that practical shit (this is the thing, we always pretend that emotional turmoil isn’t practical, but in fact it’s the most practical thing on earth if you happen to be human), later on—years later on—you look back with the privilege of faulty hindsight and wish that you hadn’t let all that shit come between you. And so I do.

We’re all strangers to each other anyway—that’s the human condition—so it’s a sort of double tragedy when not only are we strangers, but we don’t even get to be strangers in the same room. People act as though being strangers in the same room is some sort of tragedy, but in fact it’s also a privilege, one of the best things that you can hope for. Probably all that you can get.

On the day you die, you can either die surrounded by strangers in the same room or you can die surrounded by nobody at all. Everyone from time to time plays it off as though doing the latter is some sort of principled stand, but of course as my parents would have said sometime in that hazy patch of underappreciated naivete called childhood, “you think you’re having an effect on something, but the only person you’re affecting is yourself.”

I’m sitting here and my SMS beep is gong off and I’m ignoring it, because mostly I’m a hypocrite, like everyone. I should be responding. But I won’t. If I won’t, I shouldn’t stand by what I just wrote. But I will.

That’s how it goes. None of it makes sense, unless you’re a sociopath. Everything makes sense to sociopaths. That’s what makes them sociopaths.

Friendship has disappeared, along with human social interaction as we knew it.  §

Does anyone have any friends any longer?

Everyone thinks they do, but I don’t think they do. I haven’t seen a real friendship between two other people in years. Not that I believe when I see it.

It’s beginning to dawn on me that the information age has killed friendship. Facebook has killed friendship. People who say they’re “friends” now are using an anachronistic term to apply to something else, in place of the thing that no longer exists.


© Aron Hsiao / 2000

First off, everyone knows everything about everyone else now. Or at least, everything anyone is willing to present. There’s nothing left to discover in interaction. There are no more surprises. There are no more heart-to-hearts. There is no more mystery. The feature bullets for the products on the shelf are printed clearly, readily legible.

Second, and more perniciously, everyone has changed. The darker and more interesting dimensions of selves were deleted sometime between ten and twenty years ago. Everyone has bleached the surprising and the mysterious and the dark things away; everyone has worked hard to ensure that they are their best Facebook self, not just on Facebook, but everywhere—because of course everywhere is now Facebook. Third spaces are gone. Hell, first and second spaces are gone. “Cyberspace” (remember that term?) is what’s left. It’s as sterile now as we thought it was then, only it’s been so long since we experienced anything else that we’ve forgotten. We’re fish swimming in the ocean.

Do people have souls any longer? No, not really. They don’t have souls. They don’t have sad days that aren’t ironic or stylish or overwrought in some presentably performative way. They don’t sit and wonder about what is to become of themselves in silence. They don’t save these questions for friends.

Everyone’s been cleansed. There are no friends left, only personas. This leaves us longing for something we can’t even remember well enough any longer to describe. Something that’s been lost, gone out of society. Something ineffable and human.

This is the source of a bunch of problems. I’ve said this before, but I need to double and triple down about all of it. I was wrong, they were right. My research had a significant flaw that I knew about but thought I could bracket away with careful framing—it didn’t have any values attached to it, only choices as self-evident action for immediate preferences, as though immediate preferences mean anything at all in the deeper sense.

Information technology and social media are destroying the things that make life worth living. That make other humans worth knowing.

Our values are all wrong. We’re bleaching the entire world, and smiling superficially while we do it.

Either the world is ever-more cynical, or we have shitty perspective on the past.  §

Every time period offers the same backhanded praise for the previous time period: “Looking back, we were more innocent then. It was such an innocent time.”

Can it be true that every single year is progressively less innocent than the year that preceded it?

Beauty happens when eyes are closed.  §

Tiny moments of utter paradise in life:

  • The last few moments of semi-lucidity before you drift off to sleep.

  • Driving home alone with the sunroof open and music playing.

  • Sudden rain at dusk in the springtime.

  • Saying goodbye to an old friend from far away after a rare visit.

  • Watching the credits roll at the end of a long, deeply loved television series.

  • Leaving the building on the last day of school.

  • Boarding an airplane to move to a distant place.

  • The very last day of summer before fall arrives.

  • The last few minutes before midnight on the last day of the year.

  • The final play of the final game of football season.

  • The first few steps away from something you’ll never return to.

Everything that brings me joy and makes me feel alive is an ending.

Why do I love endings so much? Another question for the inner therapist?

Therapy as and with myself, volume I.  §

This is an extended exegesis on me. Fair warning. If you’re not into that sort of thing (and there’s no reason why you should be), don’t bother. Why post it? Because it’s my blog, and I read it, too—and I’ll probably want to come back to these thoughts later. So here they are.

— § —

So the basic idea in a few branches of psychology is that for a lot of people, dysfunctional aspects of life are a matter of being frozen at a certain stage of human development. Usually, this is an age at which one experienced significant and novel psychological trauma or stress of some kind.

The individual’s development can’t continue until the issue is resolved, and if a resolution isn’t forthcoming, the person remains in some ways “stuck” at that developmental moment indefinitely, trying again and again to resolve the issue so that development can proceed.

The problem, of course, is that many aspects of human development rely on contextual realities that aren’t indefinitely present. People who were abused as young children by their parents, for example, remain stuck there forever trying to figure out how to get good parenting—only by the time they’re grown, there aren’t any parents around anymore to provide it, even if they were able to somehow “find the solution” to the problem and elicit good parenting.

They’re stuck forever along the primary pathways of development; to proceed, they need professional help to find and nurture an alternate pathway to development and to actually proceed along it, which can feel counterintuitive and counter to instincts (in the literal sense).

— § —

Luckily, I was never abused as a child. I got some spankings and things, but I’ve never felt as though I were stuck in some sense still seeking out a parent’s love.

Still, like everyone, I have habits that I don’t like that I can’t seem to shake. Relationship patterns that repeat that have never made me happy. I make choices that aren’t optimal at times—when I know that I can easily do better—yet I don’t rectify them. Since I was in grade school, I’ve been the person who “isn’t living up to their incredible potential.”

I mean, it’s been three-and-a-half decades of “not living up to my incredible potential,” and I know it. Sure, wrote some books. I got a Ph.D. But I did these things in the most subversive, counterproductive of ways.


© Aron Hsiao / 2000

I refused to do publicity for my books. I didn’t go on tours. I didn’t speak or appear on media, even though I’m not shy. Why? Sales could have been so much better. I was writing on hot topics at a time of their emergence. I could have parlayed it into a career. I refused to.

The same thing goes for my academic work. I published little. I could have and should have published a lot. I was ahead of my time and could have led a certain amount of the work that’s finally become hot today. Why didn’t I?

And of course anyone who skims through the two decades of material here will sense, if not discover outright, that I have had the same troubled love relationships over and over again in my life, the most recent one ending in divorce. This is enough of a pattern (and problem) as to turn me off of the whole love thing for now entirely. It’s just no good; it’s just no fun any longer. I know where it leads.

So I’ve always known that there were “issues” that lurk underneath the surface somewhere, and that if I’d been born into privilege and had tons of money, I’d probably have spent years in collegial therapy already “working through things” and coming to understand what was what. Only I wasn’t born into privilege.

— § —

The one experience that I do have with therapy came during my divorce, as I attended therapy with my ex. This was shockingly expensive for someone in my position and I’ll be paying on that debt for a few years to come, but it felt (and probably was) worth it at the time.

This was focused on the dynamic of the couple, but each of us got a certain amount of time to do soul-searching with the help of a clinical practitioner and Ph.D.

At the individual level, it didn’t help me much. I suspected then and have become more sure since then that this was because the therapist had me wrong in a way, or was blinded by bias built over the years of their own experience. They were looking for trauma with my parents, or close friends or family, in my early years.

The therapist asked over and over again for negative experiences with intimate contacts from my early years, and I racked my brain and came up with some. Then, they’d try to talk me through them in that “therapy way” with my ex present. But it never felt as though I was really either terribly troubled by these things or terribly helped by “talking about” them.

It felt, in short, like a lot of theraputic drama about the wrong things.

— § —

Since then, I’ve spent time wondering what I could discover if I could afford therapy. Trying to be my own therapist, as it were, and excavate what in my past might be affecting me today, might have affected me all these years. What’s the source of what exes have called “bloody-mindedness” and a determination to “do things the hard way,” of all that “not living up to potential despite being brilliant” all this time?

Sometimes, just as the workday is ending or just as I’m doing shopping, I’ve let the dogs out into the backyard or walked across a grocery store parking lot asking myself questions about my past, trying to answer honestly, and then usually, ultimately, getting nowhere.

Until today. I believe I know what it is. What the “significant and novel psychological trauma or stress” is, and at what moment of development I got a bit “stuck.”

It’s not early childhood. It’s got nothing to do with my parents. It’s got everything to do with school. Oddly enough, not with bullies, though there were times when I was bulled, as is relatively common. Not with teachers, though I certainly had more than my fair share of poor, asshole educators who basically wanted to wish me away in the public school system.

— § —

I’ve always had unusual tastes in film and television. My favorite films are things like Blade Runner, Apocalypse Now, Last Year at Marienbad, and Barton Fink. These are dark, formalistic films with stilted relationships and characters that are unknowable, and thus never know each other. They’re fundamentally about categories and symbols, about confusion regarding or subversion of these, and about characters who reify and transgress them.

My television and fiction tastes have always been similar. And in all of it, there is always bias toward characters either in youth or early adulthood, grappling with things that are not “normal everyday grown-up life things.” I can watch kid dramas and high school dramas like Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why, but I’m absolutely bored with dramas on “adult” themes or with studies in deep, nuanced, communicative interpersonal relationships.

I’ve also always been weirdly revered in a lot of ways. The others at my University of Chicago graduate program called me the “rock star.” They didn’t mean this in an academic sense, i.e. the “academic rock star,” sadly. No, it was one third irony, one third wild admiration, and one third embarrassed pity. It’s not as though I haven’t always asked for this in a way. I have tattoos. I pursued the most rare in apparel and appearance. Green and purple hair, unorthodox or highly symbolic or period clothes, often chased down from the four corners of the earth. I’ve always been overly brash or inadequately communicative in precisely the right ways to always stand out.

My parents used to ask about all of this—why? My dad in particular. “Why are you always trying to do the opposite of what people think you should do?” This is not so far from the “bloody-minded” complaints that my exes have had about me, and not so far from my own deepest critiques of myself.

Why when opportunity presents itself, do I tend to shoot it dead? And why later, when there is no opportunity anywhere to be seen, do I suddenly find my determination in precisely the least favorable moment and wring a miraculous amount of blood from adjacent stones? Why not, as people have always suggested or at least implied, apply myself when it can do maximal good, and nurture my reserves when clouds hang overhead, rather than doing the opposite—dropping anchor in fair winds and then setting sail once again only when it’s most likely that I’ll capsize?

— § —

Netflix has been helpful in all of this. Because it causes me to interrogate my viewing habits. To ask why I, as a 42-year-old Ph.D. with a management job, am interested in watching films about kids, or about high school students, but not about adults doing adult things.

The questions about my film tastes have always haunted me, but Netflix has given me enough data, and enough granularity, to really draw into relief that my interests are odd.

I’ve been asking myself this question for about a year, in that “self-therapist frame of mind” that follows me around after hours.

“Aron, why do you think it is that stories about adults don’t interest you?”

There are a dozen other questions, but they all bear on the same thing, and this is the one that has been really gnawing at me since the divorce, and since the end of couples’ therapy, because I have been sure that it’s the on-ramp. It’s the most obvious, least nuanced, least polluted by human complexity issue in the set of issues that I can identify about myself that are odd.

— § —

School. But not the bullies. Not the teachers. Not the usual suspects. No one in particular, in fact.

Today, at the self-scanning machine, it came to me. I think it proceeds from watching my kids reach the end of the school year, and from my amazement at their happy, friend-filled lives and interactions. I’ve known since they got into school that they have something that I don’t and didn’t and never, ever did. I thought it was down to personality. Maybe some of it is, but not all of it. Not even most of it.

Today a light came on and I heard myself once again think something that I’ve thought over and over again for years, whose import has been right in front of my nose:

Very few people, if any, know me all that well. Very few people, if any, have ever known me all that well.

Me-therapist today asked, “How does that feel? And why do you think that is?”

And finally, I answered in a way that rang true.

— § —

Now couples’s therapist, back in 2015 and 2016, with the ex, had also gone down this road, but she went down it with a story in mind about me. It went something like this. Aron:

  • Had some early trauma in which he got hurt badly by a close relation
  • Has been trying since then to protect himself
  • Has isolated himself
  • Tends not to let people in
  • Tends to supress his emotions
  • Doesn’t get close to anyone as a result, causing relationships to fail
  • Experiences initial trauma of hurt-caused-by-loved-ones over again each time as a result

I get why this was the story that she was trying to get me to assemble about myself, under the impression that it would help. This is either a very common story or at the very least it’s a deep archetype in our culture. We’ve all seen this story told over and over again in song, in film, and in print. This would be the “stuck in infancy or early childhood” arrested development story.

But I knew it wasn’t me even as the couples’ therapist was working on it with me. Problem is that in couples’ therapy, you don’t have too much space or time to push back and get into complications without really derailing the entire thing. So I half went along with it, half pushed back, and it never helped me much.

But I finally got enough of a clue to return to these questions again with myself today, while in self-therapy mode. Here’s the actual story. Aron:

  • Had a generally happy, secure childhood
  • Was naive and rather innocent, in a pleasant way, along with his parents
  • Started school and was seen as someone(s) that he didn’t know or recognize in others’ eyes
  • Never got beyond appearing to others as a series of categories and presuppositions
  • Has generally been unseen as an individual
  • Has been trying to reconcile the categories vs. the individual ever since
  • Is drawn to people who see him in categorical terms and make presuppositions
  • And forever hopes to get these people to see a real person behind them
  • Feels compelled to elevate and defend the categories that define him
  • But also to subvert them
  • Tends to find people that don’t see him, yet believe they deeply do while merely seeing the categories
  • Works to subvert their categorical expectations, disappointing them and causing relationships to fail
  • Experiences initial trauma of being-seen-incorrectly-or-not-at-all over again each time as a result

This is the story. It’s also a common story, especially for youth, but in my case it’s exacerbated by the strange confluence of my characteristics and the place (geographically and socially) in which I grew up. This is the “stuck in first contact with non-family persons” arrested development story.

The “moment” that defines so many things in my life and life history isn’t an instance of childhood abuse. It’s the moment when I first left my parents’ home and went to public school as a taken-for-granted “me”—and that “me” disappeared immediately and permanently beneath other overpowering identities that at the time I didn’t know, understand, or even recognize.

The five-year-old that was once “me” still hasn’t resurfaced. That “me” never joined or gradually learned how to integrate itself with a community; it was submerged. The community interacted instinctively with something else(s) that lay over and obscured that kid, and that has remained the case ever since then. The bulk of my energy has been spent on this other, publicly-ascribed “me” over the years. The first “me,” the primal one, the natural one that was raised by two parents from birth—disappeared on the first day of kindergarten, or certainly during that first year, and has not come back. Yet.

— § —

There was nothing weird about me initially per se from today’s perspective, but in the time and place where I grew up—a working class, Mormon, overwhelmingly white, poorly educated part of Utah— everything was weird about me. From the moment I arrived on that first day of school, I was:

  • The “mixed-race” kid (this was simply not done then and there)
  • The “Chinese-looking” kid (this was wildly exotic then and there)
  • The “rich” kid (as far as this community was concerned)
  • The “educated” kid (first-day-K in the hood, I was reading; my parents had graduate degrees)
  • The “gifted” kid (the competition in the old neighborhood was weak; I became more and more a standout)
  • The “stuck up” kid (my parents tried to protect me from the “bad” influences everywhere)

Looking back, I remember intensely that sense of utter shock, when I arrived in kindergarten at public school. I’d always just been me, Aron. My parents saw me. My extended family saw me. I was a person, with thoughts and preferences and a personality.

From the moment I arrived in kindergarten, by virtue of being so unlike anyone else in my poor, ninety-nine percent white, country-and-western, coal miner’s daughter west-side neighborhood, I was a collection of categories, a group of signs and symbols, and overall a metonymy of one thing above all—the exotic unknown, regarded with that strange combination of fascination, horror, dread, approbation, and desire that the exotic unknown inspires.

Then, later on, when I had a breakdown in the fourth grade and was moved to what amounts to an exclusive private school for the gifted, I became:

  • The “west side” kid (only one in sight, driven cross-town from the hood every day)
  • The “poor” kid (a total inversion, now in a community of Porsche and private helicopter owners)
  • The “geek genius” (how many kids in 1987 had been programming on their very own computers since 1983?)
  • The “troubled weirdo” (try taking playground norms from the wrong side of the tracks to the elite set)
  • The “loner” kid (already it was creeping in)

Not so long after that, in middle school and high school?

  • The “dropout” (this is a big deal in a community of privileged, gifted kids)
  • The “early college” kid (after dropping out, I was herded quickly into university at 15)
  • The “double genius” (he’s been programming since 1983, he’s Chinese, he’s so smart he came from an “underprivileged” background yet dropped out of an exclusive gifted and talented program to go straight to college early and study the bewildering, cutting-edge field of computer science, instead of doing sophomore year with the other gifted kids)

In short, I never got to be myself again. It all just built up over the years. Always more of them. Even as an adult, I’ve been adding things:

  • The “author”
  • The “Ph.D.”
  • The “single, stay-at-home father”

I have sometimes bemoaned the fact that I’m no good at marketing myself, but now in a shocking plot twist, it looks as though, in a subversive way, I haven’t been doing anything but self-marketing for thirty-five years.

I am a massive bundle of things that, in the areas where I have generally been, have always made me the lone bald, dark-skinned, winged, predatory unicorn in a field of furry white vegetarian alpacas. Starting in kindergarten, I was no longer myself; I was a predefined quantity and a spokesperson who, thanks to psychological creep, came to understand myself as a spokesperson and representative—for the Chinese, for the educated, for the gifted, for the geeks, for the weirdos, for the authors, for the academics, for the single dads. I’ve done print, radio, and television interviews precisely as representatives of some of these things. As an ambassador for the categories that I embody.

After all, if this is what people understand you to be, particularly if people are ambivalent and vaguely threatened by these things, your first job in maintaining your status is to ensure that these things come off well. That they are defended. Even if you aren’t really in a position to acquit them well. Because they are you, as far as most everyone is concerned, whether you like it or not.

But always that leaves a hole in the universe where you, you the mere person once were, way back at five years old before that first day of kindergarten when you disappeared forever and became instead a set of concepts.

— § —

So contra the couples’ therapist a couple of years ago, I don’t think I’m playing out this incredibly common script in my life whereby I look for people who treat me very poorly trying through whatever means to get them to love me and treat me well to resolve the early childhood contradiction.

I think I’m playing out a script in my life whereby I perform the categories that I believe people see me to embody, and seek out people who are completely taken by (and usually both awed and frightened by) them, but who don’t see or understand me the person at all. Then, I try through a kind of schizophrenic paradox to resolve the early crisis—to both defend and elevate these categories, turn them good rather than bad in others’ minds, and at the same time to subvert these categories radically, hoping to bring them to break through the surface and see a person there—the person that my parents saw all the way back when I was five, and that hasn’t really been seen much by anyone else ever since.

In short, I find the person who is frozen in ecstatic, magnetic confusion by the fact, say, that I am a Ph.D. Then, I try to demonstrate how great and approachable and noble and okay a Ph.D. is—while at the same time doing whatever it is that I think is least Ph.D.-like, in hopes that they’ll be able to get beyond Ph.D. and see that there is something else in there somewhere—an agent, a person, a personality.

Of course, it never goes well—because when people are drawn to a set of categories in the first place out of their own combination of superficial admiration and approbation for them, neither the attempted performance of greatness nor the subversion of expectations goes well.

The worst suspicions are confirmed on every front. Obviously, “such people” are:

  • Self-important and self-aggrandizing
  • Distant and untransparent
  • Too difficult to understand
  • Not what you expect, never what you thought you were getting
  • Likely to confirm your worst fears about “such people”
  • Likely to betray your fondest hopes about “such people”

And in all cases—you remain, and are moreso—merely “such people,” and even less intelligible or relatable than they’d imagined.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

— § —

The one break in all of this: New York. This is why I loved New York so. Becasue for the first time in my life, there was enough going on around me—so very many categories everywhere represented in such numbers that they all become unremarkable—that I was effectively no particular identity or preconception when people first saw or knew about me—and so many of them were free to encounter me for the first time merely as a person. It was liberating. I was awkward, being completely untrained and unpracticed in this, yet it didn’t even matter.

But then again, in focused and close interactions, I still ended up seeking out those very few individuals—usually other new arrivals—who did attach first and foremost to my symbolic identities. Who talked about them. Admired them. Already had beliefs about them. Applauded them. Cursed them. In the first place I’ve been full of people who could easily have seen me for me, I spent my time finding people who wouldn’t.

Because I had so much to live up to, and so much to undermine.

In short, my own particular developmental self isn’t stuck trying find surrogate “terrible parents” to try to get them to love in my playpen, as is so often the case. My developmental self is stuck trying seeking out “dazzled and appalled” peers with strong preconceived ideas about me and who don’t and won’t see me at all, to try to get them to drop the “appalled” and keep the “dazzled” but make it personal and intimate and real.

What I lack isn’t the ability to individuate and self-soothe, as it is for so many people who had rotten childhoods thanks to their parents. It’s the ability to conceive of and convey myself as a nuanced, idiosyncratic, yet genuine person (in a notable Freudian slip, I had initially typed “persona” here), and to interactively build friendships from scratch on these bases—a skill, after all, that should have been learned and honed—you guessed it—in those years when and after I first got to school.

I can work a room and give a speech and dazzle professionally, I can be witty and urbane and a thousand other things, but one-on-one I don’t quite know the mechanics of relating to others, and I tend to select people for one-on-one interactions who aren’t really aiming to relate to me as me.

And while I can do all the things that would enable me to live up to my potential, I have too completely prioritized “subverting expectations and preconceived notions” to ever really do them regularly or well. Hence the “internal war” that has been recognized by so many over the years. Because I don’t want those preconceived notions and their confirmation to stand—because at some level I’m always hoping that if I break obvious rules, someone, somewhere will say “there’s more here than meets the eye” and will “keep searching more deeply” for the “real” me (never happens, not the right method), I can’t allow myself to do too often the things that—say—writers, or Asians, or Ph.D. holders generally do to be successful.

And so, for obvious reasons, I’m not all that successful. And the successes that I do have seem to come with an absurdly heroic expendature of effort and risk in the worst possible circumstances, when I can do them, too, as subversions of some kind.

In short, I suspect that at some level am the sadly stereotypical “rebel kid” crying out for attention, but receiving the “wrong kind” without knowing or having the proper skills to get the “right kind.”

That’s not all there is to me, of course. But we’re talking here about the things that hold a person back—the nagging problems that are there at mid-life and where they likely come from. And I think this is where they come from. They come from the fact that I have accepted and (quite literally) adopted “completely different” as my functional ur-identity and in the meantime as I was being seen that way early on, missed out on acquiring the skills for being merely an unremarkable part of the group—for being “the same.”

I have skills called “perform,” “impress them,” “awe them,” “high-level discourse,” and “subvert expectations.” I lack skills called “be everyday friends,” “get to know you,” “be genuine in socially acceptable ways,” and a few others akin to these.

Thing is, and going back to something that I mentioned earlier—where does one begin to acquire and practice these skills, once one leaves the K-6 educational system? I’d love a second chance.

— § —

Two interesting and relevant asides.

First, this is related to my legendarily odd relationships to food, my personal space, and even my body in certain configurations of health and fitness. I cling to certain forms of all of these because I am clinging to the remaining remnants of the kid that I once was the last time I simply was who I was. I am trying to hang on to the “real me” at some level, the one frozen it time all the way back then. The way that he lived, the things that were familiar to him, the things that he liked.

Second, this also explains my odd modes of self-definition over the years. In school, there are many occasions on which you are asked to tell people about yourself and your life. Whereas other kids peppered these with things that they liked (French food, horror novels, Scooby-Doo, etc.) and things that they habitually did (jog, garden, paint portraits, etc.), I always ended up making lists of what I was—lists of categories in the “I am” form, rather than lists of preferences in the “I enjoy” form. This is something that was noted with curiosity more than once.

Most people in a post-divorce mid-life slump proclaim that they need time to figure out “who they are.” I do not need time to figure out “who I am.” I have been playing that game for far too long and know very well who I “am.” What I need is to figure out “what I’m like,” and how to simply embody that with awareness and transparency in the world.

— § —

This has been long. But I’ve been looking for the “key,” for the “unifying thread” for a very long time, and in a lot of ways. And I’ve known that there was a story in my personal history, in this set of categories over time, that I needed to tell—not to others, but to myself. I’ve finally found it, by god. Today, I finally found it. I don’t know how many times I’ve written, just to myself, my little personal history, compelled, grappling for the insight that I sensed was there somewhere. It’s finally down “on paper” in a way that feels right, that feels like what I’ve been trying to narrate to myself for decades.

So what does all this mean and what do I do with it? What is the implied action that proceeds from all of this?

I don’t know. I’m still learning to be a self-therapist so that I can continue to do this self-therapy thing.

I’ve titled this as the first in a series. I don’t know when the next installment will come. Maybe in a year. Maybe in six months. Maybe in a week. Maybe never.

But this one is now here.

Parenthood is an all-encompassing, but rewarding and at times surreal, experience.  §

Sunday night slice of life: I am a parent.


© Aron Hsiao / 2018

There are a million things in my life that I’m not sure about, that seem up in the air. Always have been. But parenthood is one solid thing amidst all the bizarro wreckage of 42 years.

It’s also my most consistent provider of work right now in life. Everything else waxes and wanes, but the parenthood labor remains more or less constant. Looking around the house, it’s not entirely clear who lives here or what they do, but it’s very clear that there are kids involved.

I wasn’t sure it was the right time to have kids when we decided to have kids. My ex-wife (wife at the time) found this infuriating and weak. But I knew from experience—from having grown up as the oldest of multiple kids—that kids take life over. When I finally agreed, I knew that I was sacrificing a career and a particular financial future.

No regrets whatsoever. The kids are everything. This is also true in a very literal sense in terms of the material circumstances of life. Tonight:

  • Cleaned boogers off the wall

  • Returned dozens of toys from all over the kitchen to bedroom

  • Went through a stack of random, wildly folded up “papers” left around the house

  • Found re-hidden plastic easter eggs and put away into Easter decor storage

  • Triaged kid art and decided which pieces to save and which pieces to gently “retire”

  • Re-stacked skateboards again, hope it lasts for a few days this time

  • Put a random stack of bead bracelets and necklaces into a random jar

  • Threw out a week and a half’s worth of “saved” food in the fridge

  • Retrieved laundry from under couch cushions

  • Sorted game pieces from general soup back into their proper game boxes

  • Vacuumed up scattered pine needles and leaf fragments from unfinished “project”

  • Found all electronic devices but one and plugged them in to charge

  • Installed roll dice skill on Echo due to missing game dice in the sort-out

  • Put away some winter items, though not all because it’s been still cold and rainy

  • Gathered up recent daughter mementos and put them into a “scrapbook pile”

  • Made mental note to get ahold of a scrapbook

  • Gathered collected rocks from around house and put them in rock collection box

  • Neatly stacked all fidget spinners

  • Neatly stacked all guiness record and comic books

  • Put all crayons, markers, pens, and pencils into “writing things” flower pot

It all took hours. I don’t really use any of these things, but they are the considerable clutter of my life. Sometimes a reflect bemusedly on the fact that I have a Ph.D. in sociology, but I’m working from home as a copywriter, comms manager, and general geek while stacking up fidget spinners in my spare time.

But I don’t do that very often.

I do wonder, however, about the people who seem frustrated at parenthood, or bothered by the fact that they had kids or are a parent. I think these people are sad, and sadly divorced from their humanity. Yes, I’m judging. Part of my job as a parent is to make judgments, at least for a few more years.

Peterson, Gambino, Sanders, Trump, and the importance of being earnest.  §

I said something about earnestness a few days ago. Then, Childish Gambino dropped his latest.

Meanwhile, the Bari Weiss article on the “intellectual dark web” continues to rankle out there, and to generate in particular discussion about Jordan Peterson, even as “This is America” continues to spread and to be increasingly juxtaposed with recent work and comments by Kanye West.

I think that both Peterson and Gambino are exploding—at least in part—for the same reasons.

— § —

I’m fascinated by earnestness for two reasons:

  1. I was born a tempermentally earnest kid.

  2. I had this earnestness insistently trained out of me by years of public school, years as an undergraduate, years in grad school, years in the workforce, and years and years of participation in a culture that sees earnestness to be somewhere between risible, a tragic birth defect, and a mortal sin.

There aren’t many earnest people left. Mostly, we make fun of them, have them make the coffee, and don’t invite them to the parties or out on dates.


© Aron Hsiao / 2005

We work hard to train our young people to be urbane, ironic, and detached. Our contemporary literary giants are such because they are so god damned postmodern; they don’t mean a single thing, because what is meaning something anyway beyond a form of slave labor in the service of one master or another, so the really smart slaves sabotage the machinery and play at being earnest with a self-aware wink and a nod, all the while crossing their fingers behind their back.

If you’re really good at this, it gets you a lot of dates in grad school. People will hang out with you and sleep with you just to spend time with someone who’s so god damned good at wittily referring to everything while meaning nothing in a kind of symphonic production of hilariously insincere sincerity.

But actual earnestness—is hard to find. So hard to find that when we now experience it from someone, we mistake them for Jesus.

— § —

What makes Peterson different from the other academics and the rest of the self-help crowd, and what makes Gambino different from Kanye, is that we get the feeling that both Peterson and Gambino:

  1. Actually know what they believe. This is no small thing in a world of people whose minds are largely trained to think in referentiality and “critical thinking,” which at some level is a virtue, but at another level becomes the particularly postmodern vice of refusing to ever allow yourself to believe anything completely, underneath it all.

  2. Are actually willing to say what they believe without an asterisk, in an entirely “no, not even joking, not joking at all” kind of way that causes everyone to get them wrong, thinking it all at first to be a great send-up or an even greater racket, but then later to become confused because they don’t know how to listen in this register.

In short, what links Peterson, Gambino, not to mention Sanders, Trump, and a bunch of other figures of explosive recent importance is the sense that they are not putting us on, nor are they trying to produce what we want to hear.

The idea that you “produce for an audience,” that you “ensure that you’re delivering value for your employer,” that you “measure your impact and iterate on successful strategies” is so ingrained in us that we have forgotten that there was once a separation between this dimension of being and a more personal way of being-in-the-world in which you were not working for some marketplace in some way with every single utterance.

— § —

Recent years have put the lie to the adage that you ought to “be yourself.”

Everyone says this, and everyone says they are doing it, and nobody means it on either count. Everyone knows who they are supposed to be. Liberal, conservative, academic, blue-collar, white, black, everyone knows that there is a particular model for the “socially acceptable person” that the market demands.

Yes, to some extent this is always the case, but the degree to which it is the case and the ways in which it can affect your personal life vary from age to age. In our age, you’ll be fired for having the wrong political opinion or using particular words in even innocuous ways that would have been invisible just a few years ago—because companies, families, and organizations of every other kind are now “activist” groups with “mission statements” and they explicitly and publicly place themselves on the political spectrum.

It’s part of employee training now to find out what your Fortune 500 company’s particular political issues are and what positions they take on these issues, and to undergo (and have to sign) “training” in which you agree to adopt these positions as a condition of employment.

On both sides of the aisle, people now “cut off” their friends and even their family for voting in the “wrong” ways. Because of course you can’t “surround yourself with toxic people” or people who are trying to “destroy our society,” etc.

And so it is that everyone—the famous and the public intellectuals included—adopts a particular persona constructed from the market demands that surround their particular location in society. Everyone knows who “their audience” is, and they also know that thanks to social media, Goffman’s “backstage” has disappeared; everyone is now always on frontstage all the time.

We are all public figures.

And the final requirement for any persona to be valued by the marketplace, after a long list of requirements is enumerated, is: “and of course, you should also be yourself.”


© Public domain

Any attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction can easily lead a person to dark thoughts about totalitarianism, which is why worry about encroaching totalitarianism has overtaken everyone on every side of every aisle.

Everyone attributes their sense of the tragedy of it all to “the opposition” without realizing that in fact it is “the culture” and the cultural logic that emerges from the demands that they, too, habitually make now as a consumer of other people in the market.

— § —

Enter these figures.

Peterson, Gambino, Sanders, Trump, going viral, exploding into public life, being characterized both as geniuses and terrorists.

Behind the “issues” that these people are discussing, I suspect that the deeper resonance that’s occuring arises from the fact that they exude an actual authenticity in a culture in which “authenticity” is one of the coins of the realm, but most of the currency in circulation is counterfeit, and we all know it.

In the face of the genuine article, the public experiences a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony at the incredible power that comes with non-counterfeit wealth, and at the envy that it all produces; these people have become culturally rich by breaking all of our cardinal cultural rules, and that doesn’t seem fair. Ecstasy at the experience of El Dorado that obtains when we hear them—real diamonds shimmer and are so much more brightly; real gold is so much softer and more lustrous; real opals put their plastic counterparts to shame.

As Jeffrey Goldfarb once discussed at some length in The Politics of Small Things, in a totalitarian culture, simple, earnest personal honesty—the unaffected speaking of believed truths without consideration of their eventual consumption and consequences—is street terrorism of the most thrilling kind.

Earnest honesty threatens to destroy everything, simply everything—and that is as delightful, and as terrible, as anything that a totalitarian citizen can recall ever having experienced.

Childish Gambino. Some things need to be said by everyone who can say them.  §

Since this dropped I can’t stop watching it. The national discussion—and finally, this work has managed to initiate it—is not wrong. This is one of the most important works of American art to be created in my lifetime.

The layers of meaning and resonance involved stretch well beyond those in the work proper.

Million of words have been written and spoken in attempts to capture and describe our America—today’s America—and its fundamental problems, contradictions, and zeitgeist. I’ve participated in that struggle, at the margins, always feeling that words were inadequate to the task. But Glover has done it, economically and powerfully, in three minutes with just a handful of words.

— § —

Things that I’ve seen about this video that I think their writers got right:

  • Our Jim Crow legacy
  • Distraction—celebrity, entertainment, narcissism, wealth, drugs, denial—in the face of deepening crisis
  • Gun violence (c.f. recent cases, last few years) and the relative values placed on guns and people
  • The tragedy of black-on-black violence
  • The larger context of racial violence and relations
  • Actual vs. entertainment-represented status and lifestyles of Americans
  • Takedown of a particular contemporary branch of hip-hop culture
  • Open car doors—note no drivers, they’ve been shot—on cars that aren’t the cars of the wealthy
  • Social media and cell phone culture, activism, and its impotence
  • The now infamous horseman of the apocalypse
  • Reference to other communities descended from slavery (America is part of that larger story)
  • Cynicism—get your money, the “gospel” of money
  • The way in which riot police descend on suffering communities after violence, but not before
  • The interruption and following 420 reference echoing the moment of silence for Stoneman Douglas

Four more things that I’ll add that I haven’t seen anywhere yet:

(1) When all the drama is done, and he finds a kind of relief dancing on top of the car to cries of “get your money”—an idea that both the music and scene suggest to be the postcathartic arrival at a decision, a place of certainty rather than shock or questioning—he is alone. This is very much also our America. All that has gone before in the video is commodity, as he seems to point out—the guns, the kids, the drugs, the music, the phones, the riots, the media, the lives—and money is the basis for commodity exchange. Get your money, it is the doorway to everything, the choir seems to be saying, but we know that they are saying it cynically, almost sarcastically. But what is the critique here in explicit terms?

Others have pointed out the death. I’ll also point out something else—that he dances alone. No matter how transcendent (or, say, desperate) his dancing, no matter how much separation from the mayhem he has found on top of that car, no matter how much money he collects or at the expense of how many crimes, he dances alone—no evidence of functioning community, friendship, or family. The children, too, have left him. This would seem to be evocative of certain facts on the ground.

(2) There is a developmental arc here that is half Hegelian, half Piaget, and that echoes a prospective larger historical arc (see if you can imagine which one). He begins in innocence and a kind of natural genuineness (which obscures yet embodies its contradiction, the brutality of Jim Crow and the minstrel show), with some foreshadowing of what is to come. This gives way to cynicism and disillusionment, which are the environments of brutality and exploitation. At the end, he (and the music, too) find a synthesis of these two, at first uncomfortable and overwhelming yet also inevitable and cathartic, giving way to a feeling of naturalness once again as he finds his alignment with this synthesis, as shown by the dancing. Then—a new thesis; he is running. Darkness returns. Everyone forms the game; everyone plays the game; the game is constituted by its players.

Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Innocence, disillusionment, integration. Mutual constitution and engagement, even if the complete body of interests of each party remain unmet. This is the cycle of almost everything in social life, at all scales. Those who believe in God or in the “arc of history” (this would seem to encompass both left and right these days) see a Hegelian telos beneath this cycle. What we have not found right now is the integration that will follow our present epoch of disillusionment. Perhaps the purpose of his critique is to foreground the cynicism of disillusionment and call once again for reflection toward a new synthesis—a new integration.

(3) The cadence and tenor of the experience also echo those of our lives. America lulls itself with the complacency of production values and naive, self-satisfied first-worldism—along too many axes to enumerate in a place like this. And then—we are brought back—to America. Reality is unforgiving, and the contradictions can no longer be painted over. They erupt without warning—as mass shootings, as terrorism, as Trump—in ways that we tell ourselves and experience to be “out of the blue.”

We lie, including to ourselves. It’s not out of the blue, and it’s no longer rare—there is too much tension in the system. Attention is required, yet from an explosion of attention we rapidly return to complacency. We “slip up.” And then—the actual state of America erupts into view once again somewhere else. The title, and the line as delivered, are not merely descriptions; he is not telling us that this is America. He is reminding us that this is America. It is a corrective, as delivered by an instructor: “No. You slipped again. Pay attention this time. This is America.”

His “this is” is covertly “you are in.” You are in America. You know what that means. “Don’t catch you slippin’ now.”

(4) Formally, he has done historic newsreel footage, not “music video.” Frame corners are rounded off like vintage film. Grain has been added. Dynamic range is very high, highlights are not clipped, posterization is very low but there is a lot of “natural dithering,” the color response isn’t that of a digital colorspace like sRGB or aRGB, it’s more limited than that. I don’t know if this was actually shot on film, but it gives that effect.

The shots are long, with pans and zooms, not transitions—like reportage. Also, note the horizontals vs. the frame lines, as well as the shift upward to catch the observers with mobile phones. Whether shot handheld or not, it was made to look as though it was shot handheld—again, like reportage.

This is being presented to us as a documentary—not as entertainment. It’s a subtle effect, but it brings an entirely different psychology to the viewer, without their realizing it. It is presented as coming from “the archives of what actually happened” (or, say, is happening) rather than from the national entertainment machine.

— § —

Very few contemporary works bear repeated listenings/viewings/readings without running dry. And very rarely have artists produced “music videos” that represent a complete synthesis of the visual and musical forms. This one is different. The visual and aural elements can’t be separated; they are deeply intertwined. There are a multiplicity of interpretations, a wealth of references, much ambiguity—and yet all of it, even interpretations that appear to be contradictory, are deeply evocative of America, itself beset by impossible contradictions at the moment. I’ll do the impolitic and say that this resonance goes beyond the experiences of the African-American community that is most obviously represented.

To me, this work captures the essence of this American moment. And paradoxically, it is also hopeful—by the very act of creating it, Glover implies that this isn’t the eternal, unavoidable America. There are alternatives; things can be different.

But perhaps—and this is a message that both left and right need to hear right now—neither an analysis of, nor the pursuit of, money or of power—as held by or held over anyone—will get us there. Perhaps we should instead wonder what we might be missing in our endless discussions about who’s abusing the money or who has or does not have the power—and try to ensure that we stop idolizing or seeking the performance, and even more to the point, seeking refuge in the performance of dancing alone.

You don’t appreciate mentorship until you’re older than most likely mentors.  §

I need someone to learn from. I am sorely lacking in guidance, in a model for how to live and how to succeed right now, and I can feel it in my bones.


© Aron Hsiao / 2002

Problem is, I have no interest in life coaches or in therapists. These aren’t people who have been any more successful at anything than I have. They’ve followed the same basic path of school, to degree or training, to career, to middle class boredom. Even if they had anything else to say about anything else, they haven’t actually done the things I’m interested in learning about.

There are people—more than one—that I’d love to learn from, but you can’t just approach successful people with hand extended asking for “help,” especially more than once. And I’d want a lot more than once. Even worse, I’m getting to the age at which most of these people are younger than me, so they’d feel awkward about it.

I watch them with awe and a tinge of envy, seeing how adept they are at dreaming interesting dreams and then going out and doing surprising and brilliant things to make them come true with a kind of innocence that borders to the cynical eye (which I no doubt have after years in academics) almost on naivete.

Penelope Trunk says that to get successful people to help you, you need to ask them interesting, flattering, and specific questions. Problem is, I don’t even know where to begin, much less do I have interesting, flattering, and specific questions.

I’d just approach them and ask if they would adopt me and teach me everything they know. If I was sixteen years old, that might work out, but when I’m forty-two and they’re in their twenties or thirties, it hardly works that way.

I’ve told my kids more than once that if you find someone older than you who’s leading a life that you admire and is willing to be friends with you, you should spend as much time with them as you can and learn by watching and asking questions as much as you can, because someday you’ll be the oldest person in the room and if you don’t have the answers you seek by then, there may not be anyone to ask for them.

The common advice to “surround yourself only with successful people” becomes harder and harder to make use of the older you get. At some point, it turns for reasons of mere plausibility into “surround yourself with people” and then later into “surround yourself with pets” before eventually turning into “surround yourself with period collectibles” and then “surround yourself with medical equipment.”

But it’s hard to convince young folk that this is good advice; they mostly want to do other stuff, and only to get to the “serious” stuff once they reach middle age—by which time it’s far too late.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

Don’t “do epic shit.” You’ve been had. It’s time to “do basic shit” instead.  §

Is anyone else put off by the rhetoric of success and fulfillment in our culture? Whether it’s self-help books, TED events, interviews with “thought leaders,” or any other forum, any discourse on living a good life invariably tracks toward a relatively uniform series of phrases:

  • Do epic shit

  • Accomplish great things

  • Expand what is possible

  • Change the world

  • Do the impossible

  • Transform lives


© Sylvana Colmenares

There is this constant, rolling thunder of rhetoric about how the path to happiness lies in, essentially, being Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus.

I can just hear the beautiful people now, echoing this: “Oh yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I mean! That’s what my five bullet points and introductory joke are all about! You, yes you can be Ghandi. Or Mandela. Or Jesus. Each of us is a minor deity! Hell, each of us is a major deity if we’ll only get out of our own ways! You as Jesus? Why not! Seize your destiny and be the creator of a radical new reality. The world needs the transformation that only you can bring!”

Some thoughts.

  1. What utter bullshit we all are willing to consume, in large quantities. How did this discourse ever get off the ground, much less become culturally ascendant?

  2. There are so many billions—who just want to chop wood, carry water, and tend to their own little corner of the world with their own little families—to whom this presumedly universal appeal does not actually appeal.

  3. It is never humanity’s rank-and-file saying these things; it is those of extremely high status or wealth. It isn’t easy to achieve status or wealth, or more people would do it. Even the little-corner-tenders wish they had an extra $100 monthly to upgrade their garden hoses and repaint the shed. If changing the world is easy, surely just getting an extra $100 monthly should be desperately easy. But I suspect that if you put any regular Joe from the streets (not the towering offices) of <insert megacity here> on the stage or in a book’s pages, they’d say that it’s damned hard to transform your June, much less the entire world.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I do believe that in all of this stuff what I actually see is the global elite telling other members of the global elite how to allocate their money to and with one another—either “Invest in me and people like me!” or “Here’s what you need to care about, how you need to act, and how you must present for me to invest in you!” but dressed up in the language of ethics or aspiration.

  5. Nearly all of the breathless advice on offer takes the form of a discourse of positivity about risk and failure—personal, professional, and corporate. Take risks. Be willing to fail. Do these things that led Unicorn X to succeed. None of it confronts the fact that risk tolerance requires reserves—that if most took these personal, professional, and corporate risks, they would simply end up alone, hungry, and homeless, rather than ascending to the top of the food chain. None of it considers that naked chance has an awful lot to do with success, and that countless people throughout history have lived lives full of idealistic risks, failed utterly, and died miserable (or even died executed), and that we used to call these people “dreamers” and “schemers” not just to describe them, but to warn the children about the likely consequences of simply “following your passion no matter what” and “always thinking outside the box.”

  6. In short, the people who are best positioned to take and use this advice to positive effect are those that don’t really need it.

  7. Yet thanks to modern communications systems, all of this has come to serve as a kind of weird success porn for the global middle class and underclasses, whom are the vast majority of folks. It’s the modern form of gossiping about and hanging off every word of the royals, even though the astute folks know deep down that they’ll never even catch so much as a glimpse of the palace interior with their own profane eyes (the stupid people wrangling their way into the palace and getting hung in the process).

— § —

I have the hunch that a certain amount (and not a small amount) of the politics on the left and right just now—both blood and soil and privilege and intersectionality as discourses—is down to the fact that people are struggling with this hyperbolic cheerleading from the elites, divorced from all reality.

Blood and soil is a values reaction. “You know very well that radically innovating a dot-com into a ‘unicorn’ is something I’ll never, ever do. I reject the lies that you tell me, and advocate for the pursuit of opposite, far more democratic values—the very mundane values of reproductive lineage, which everyone actually does have, and a patch of land, on which everyone actually does stand.” It is expressed histrionically to match the histrionics cheerleading of the elites, because otherwise it is tough to get everyone excited about something that is not, in any sense, elite—that is universal to seven billion people on the planet.

Privilege and intersectionality is an instrumental reaction. “Okay, I buy your story that I can become Jesus. Now I demand the conditions that will make that become possible for me.” It is expressed as true belief because the language of the cheerleaders is also the language of true belief; to embrace their promises requires true belief. Utopianism is all about transforming the world and doing the impossible, so when people are reassured that this is their destiny, it’s not all that surprising that they set out to accomplish it, even if there are practical considerations that seem to obstruct them.

The distasteful irony of all of this is that many of the people at the heights who pepper society with this optimistic hucksterism claim to be enlightened and hew to one spiritual tradition or another, often publicly. Buddhism is a common one, though there are others, some of them secular. But their claimed enlightenment often leaves behind a key tenet of every tradition of enlightenment: the notion that individual humans are very, very small, and our job is to make peace with that, live our lives in acceptance of the suffering that this implies, and simply do every day the little things that need to be done, with gratitude not for our ability to change the world, but in fact for our chance to chop wood and carry water at all (i.e. for the simple fact that we exist and are alive, despite the smallness of both).

— § —

It seems sad that “enlightenment” has become an insidious thing, but under the label as it is used today, I believe that it has. This is a key reason for the popularity of someone like Jordan Peterson. People are tired of being told that it is their destiny to “do epic shit” and “change the world,” then looking around and realizing that not only have they not done so but that in fact they can’t see any possible avenue by which this might occur, much less do they actually want to be involved in any such project.

Look around for people that are telling us instead that:


© Aron Hsiao / 2018
  • Life is hard

  • But you can get through it

  • It’ll still be hard, but easier, if you speak plainly and do your small everyday shit with acceptance and dedication

  • Defend your little bit of ground because it’s all you’ve got, and don’t pursue someone else’s because it’s all they’ve got

  • That’s all there is, but there are moments when it doesn’t seem so bad if:

  • You let go of trying to be Jesus (if that’s your thing) and just do your fucking laundry on time

  • You pull yourself together, forget TED, and just do basic shit (if you haven’t been doing it)

  • Don’t worry, we’re all actually in more or less the same boat, the rest is all lies

  • Always have been, always will be, and that’s basically it, man

I suspect that these are the voices that are going to rise to the top of the cultural pile as the forces of reaction continue to accumulate over the next few years.

Time to try an old something new, all over again.  §

Leapdragon has been around since 1999. In that time, I’ve seen more blog searches and blog redistributors than I can count come and go. Every now and then, I connect this thing to one of these platforms to see what happens. So I’m doing that again.

Why? Good question.

One of the reasons why Leapdragon has been so long-lived is that my ambitions for it have always been very small. Like, desperately small.

When I started writing, I’m not sure that “blog” was even a thing. Instead, people called them “web diaries.” That’s more or less how I thought about Leapdragon. It was my diary (well, as much of it as I dared publish for the public) put online. But it’s also in keeping with the original idea of a blog—that is to say, a “web log.” A log. Like, what I did last summer and not much more than that.

Basically, this thing is about:

  • No particular ideology

  • No particular theme or topic

  • No particular political project

  • No particular format

It remains me, chucking online whatever I think whenever a bee begins to buzz about in my bonnet with sufficient fury to cause me to feel a compulsion to post. I have posted about just about everything here: dating, marriage, kids, academics, publishing, technology, tutorials, pets, cooking, housekeeping, philosophy, road trips, and whatever else. And none of it as “advice.” No instructions, no “how to” imperative. Perish the thought.

And I’ve always done it with no particular ambitions about readership, coverage, completeness, etc. Not to serve an audience, but to mark down what I think, as honestly as I can.

I’ve actually started other things that might have been called “blogs” over the years, each of them with bigger or more specified ambitions. They didn’t survive. Not because they didn’t find an audience, because eventually they didn’t find a regular poster (e.g. me). I got tired of writing about the topic, in each case, fairly early on, and found myself rolling my eyes at caring about audiences and growth and being “right” and so on.

But Leapdragon, because it has no aspirations and no regular posting schedule, can’t be underserved, undermined, or betrayed. The audience has always been very small to nonexistent, but for that reason, the posting has continued.

For that reason, I’m a bit hesitant now, years after any previous attempts, to give this thing any new avenues for distribution, because I really don’t want to upset the balance. And yet, people here and there are recently telling me that I should distribute it, and maybe—just maybe—I’m old enough now to not give a shit about any blowback and to just keep pressing on.

So we’ll see. But here goes.

Now, if this works, you can: Follow my blog with Bloglovin.

I don’t expect to actually get any more traffic this way, and that’s actually perfectly okay. There are just times when you follow your nose for the hell of it, and this is one of them.

Jordan Peterson upsets elites for personal, not political reasons.  §

Having listened to a decent amount of Jordan Peterson content and read his book, the way that he continues to be represented in the press and in much of academics is fascinating to me. There is a general consensus amongst the elites that he is dangerous for some reason, but their explanations invariably mischaracterize what he produces.

I think I finally understand why this is. One thing that is often mentioned by press that is favorable to him is that he is “earnest” by nature. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that he believes not only that there are bad things, but that there are good things. Not “good” as in enjoyable to particular person(s) in the world, but objectively and morally good—as in noble, edifying, inspiring, uplifting, and and worthy.


© Travis Rupert / 2018

These are, in general, concepts that are foreign to our cultural elites, whose cynicism and ironic skepticism are legendary.

They have been taught—and now believe and teach themselves—that nothing means anything. Everything is a pose, or at best merely a personal preference. Belief in “goodness” as a quantity and as a concept is as anachronistic as belief in a flat earth or in the four humors. Such belief rightly belongs today only to the credulous, to the naive and the simple.

Now along comes someone who says without irony and while holding a Ph.D. that nobility is actually a thing. Not only that, but lots of grown people actually agree with him. This is very troubling to our cultural elites. Though they frame their reactions as exercises in public intellectualism, I think something more personal is at stake underneath it all.

They can’t afford to confront the possibility that nobility might exist after all, because they have spent their entire lives being dismissive of it. They have spent their entire lives, in fact, cultivating the kind of willful, self-satisfied ignobility that an ironic, postmodern pose embodies. It is the adolescent triumph of the sneering nonbeliever, “woke” not so much in the social justice sense as in the “your parents have been lying to you and Santa Claus isn’t actually real” sense.

To imagine that there might be something actually noble somewhere in the world, or that there might be things to be taken seriously, or that (most importantly) something somewhere in human life might actually mean something to someone without the wry qualification of caveats or knowing winks—is to imagine that they have wasted their entire lives becoming something banal and tasteless when they might have been so much more.

They argue that Peterson is a threat to social structure precisely because they can’t admit to themselves or anyone else that Peterson has placed them uncomfortably face-to-face with their personal values and unexpectedly shown these to be avoidant and overcompensative rather than impervious and astutely shrewd.

In short, Peterson makes them feel like middle-class teenage punk rockers feel when they come face-to-face with actual battle-worn and battle-weary rebels that have been on humanity’s toughest front lines. Their years of taking the piss—which used to make them feel important and knowing—suddenly feel small and twee after all instead, despite pretensions to the opposite—as do they, themselves, if they don’t push back cognitively and reinterpret things as quickly as possible before the rising implications become conscious realizations.

If Peterson is right, they’re suddenly not the smartest people in a room full of naive plebes; rather, they themselves are the naive ones in a civilization of adults who were right all along. And like all callow youths, they can’t afford to countenance this loss of face at the personal level; it would require that they start all over again in building a self that they aren’t embarrassed by in a world in which nobility and vice are things after all.

In short, it’s not what Peterson might mean for the world that is so troubling to some people, despite what they say; rather, I suspect that what’s at stake is what Peterson might mean for their images of themselves and their own contributions to the world.