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

Getting up early leads to posts without titles.  §

Historically (as in, for the duration of my entire life, going all the way back to childhood), I’ve been a night owl. To bed at 1:00 or 2:00 am, up at maybe 8:00 or 9:00 am, with a heavy reliance on the alarm clock in the morning to get to school, work, or whatever other event is at hand on time.

For the last couple of weeks, I have suddenly been falling asleep at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, without the resistance I’d always previously felt to an early bedtime. In quite, I’ve felt quite content to just fade out as the sun fades out for the first time in my life.

And I’ve been getting up the last several days at 5:00 or 6:00 am. Today? 4:00 am.

Is there a medical change of some kind going on here? I haven’t changed anything about my day-to-day living. Same job, same diet, same level of activity, same everything. Nothing new in my personal life. No new significant other, no new pets, nobody has died.

It is just different.

What does it all mean, and why has it suddenly changed? Not sure.

On beards and mirrors and other things temporal.  §

Every now and then I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, a middle-aged-and-aging guy with a white beard and an increasingly craggy face.

It was really not so long ago I was quite young and spry.

My marriage aged me sixteen years over the course of eight. And then after that my divorce aged me twenty-four years over the course of the next eight.

I went from being a twenty-year-old thirty-something to being a seventy-year-old forty-something in what feels like no time flat.

I wonder if there’s a way to reverse it.

Then at other times I wonder if it helps to care, and if so, how one can go about doing that again.

Rather lazily insert ‘Insert title here’ title here.  §

I was listening to an interview with Tori Amos because I’m old and I know stuff.

She was talking about how following the death of her mother and successive pandemic lockdowns, she had become confused. Lost. But lost in that way in which you don’t even know how to go about thinking of yourself as lost.

And she said that she had an insight one day and said to herself, “I have to write myself out of this.”

And here I am.

— § —

I have a mug that says I’m a writer. That’s the first thing.

But beyond that, I wrote seven books that have been translated into a list of languages. I wrote papers that are in journals and anthologies. I wrote essays that are in leading intellectual vanguard publications. I wrote poems by the pound and put out chapbooks. I started blogging in 1999 and blogged for twenty-two years straight.

Now here I am and it’s 2022 and when’s the last time I wrote anything?

Months, at least. I have been in danger of not even being a blogger any longer. I have been in danger of not being a writer any longer, even though at the end of the day that’s the only thing I’ve ever really known and the only thing that ties together all those loose, fraying threads of the thing called “me” over all these years.

— § —

Every third day or so I’ll be busy doing something completely unrelated—taking out the trash, or standing up a virtual machine for work, or doing laundry—and I’ll have this sudden, desperate need to write. I’ll start putting things together in my head, in the voice that only speaks when I have something to write, assembling words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.

It’ll become a physical sensation, like being covered in ants or not being able to breathe. I’ll feel as though I’m becoming so tense that at any moment I’ll start snapping bones if I don’t find my way to a keyboard and start typing.

And I’ll tell myself I just need another thirty seconds to finish what I’m doing and then keyboard and in the nick of time I’ll reach it and save my life. But that thirty-second pause is too long.

I’m repeatedly too late and each time it happens I die an untimely death, replaced by the unconscious petty functionary that mindlessly performs the requisite tasks of modern living. The threshold of no return has been crossed, the dam has broken, and all the words have fallen away in a rush, emptying the reservoir.

Pieces of me lost forever.

— § —

I’ve been losing myself steadily for fifteen years, since the day I was married. For a moment it seemed as though the divorce would arrest the process, but it didn’t. The background violins continued to play, the dancers continued to dance, the whole hazy scene continued on as if it was all a film that I was watching—and at the end of it, here I am, distractedly listening to Tori Amos interviews on YouTube while I putter around the house doing mindless chores until I hear her say, “I have to write myself out of this” and yet again I experience a fleeting moment of lucidity.

But this time I stop what I’m doing and I write because by god, this time someone has put the word “write” at the center of said moment.

— § —

I’m like everyone else in that I’ve become a collection of things. Tools, appliances, linens, knickknacks, doodads, this and that, tasks, jobs, responsibilities, workflows, opinions, origins and destinations, times of day.

There are so many things. There is so much clutter. It’s all clutter. The whole world is clutter. Clutter, clutter, clutter. On the desk, in the sky, in my guts, under my psyche.

I mean, I’m still tempted to start paragraphs with “when we were in couples’ therapy…” and go into some stale insight that I gathered then that has now been sitting in the uncleaned refrigerator of my mind for the better part of a decade as though there is still a “we.” Mindless habits of mind are our favorite embodied oxymoron.

No. I won’t write it. I won’t.

But I can’t figure out how to overcome clutter. I don’t want to adopt the vision of the state as James Scott put it and somehow organize it all out of existence. The clutter is the words, the words are the clutter, and both are me.

It doesn’t strike me as the solution to reform my consciousness and self into a series of well-ordered, sanitary city blocks, the better for the taxation of myself, zoning all of the color out of existence.

But at the same time, I’m buried in it—I can’t master it—it drives me to suffocation so rapidly that even the suffocation is buried in the clutter before I can reach a keyboard and begin to try to cope with it.

— § —

There is a feminine talent that exists in the miasma of the universe for figuring this sort of thing out. In material terms we call it “nesting” or “homemaking” but it’s a kind of innate talent for nurturing what appears to be disorder into what was always actually beauty.

The problem with our current epoch is that this yin of our collective being was, after aeons of fertility, suddenly cut short sometime during my lifetime.

As a man listening to an interview with Tori Amos I commit a man’s sins. I hear her talk about listening to the trees and those sorts of things and I begin to think it’s a lot of woo until she drops the conclusion that “I need to write myself out of this” and then suddenly I realize that as a man I couldn’t get from trees to creative process on my own and in fact I can’t get to the destination of creative process from any origin at all right now.

The world misses this.

There is precious little of the yin of our species being anywhere right now, and that said, precious little of the yang either. Women wanted to “have what men always had” and instead became callous and petty. Men worked at “being in touch with their feminine selves” and simply stopped growing up, remaining pre-pubescent forever.

— § —

One of the joys of being out of academics and working entirely remotely is that I can be a bumpkin, a rube. I can listen to interviews with Tori Amos on YouTube and I can talk about yin and yang with a straight face (if you could see it) as I sit here typing and not worry that someone may see it and end my career.

The general problem with the Smart People is that they don’t understand that we’re dying. They don’t even see the clutter, much less the fact that they are attempting to curate and tax it rather than transform it into biography and living.

We are all lost.

I’m not more lost than anyone else, really, I’m just lost in a different key. That and I’m not comfortable in it because it’s visible to me precisely because for so many years I wasn’t lost.

— § —

None of this is to say that I have confidence that I can write myself out of this. One of the characteristics of clutter (metaphorical or not) is that it makes both reading and writing difficult.

At the same time, it is something to do. That is not nothing.

In a phase of my life in which every single day has been the same for years and years and in which the only reason I bother to get up in the morning has been that my kids (who are now needing me less and less as they grow) have needed me to get up in the morning and direct traffic and provide dad speeches, well… it’s something to do.

I am badly in need of something to do, rather than all that nothing of household workflows. It’s not enough to let the yard go. I need to let about a dozen more things go. “Go” meaning, of course, “grow a history, change with time, accumulate evidence of being.”

— § —

That’s it. That’s the thing.

When you paint the walls and fold the socks and go to work, change stops.

When change stops, time stops.

Einstein said that time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once. But there is another way to neuter time, and that’s to ensure that nothing happens at all, to whitewash and clean and repair everything, every day—every piece of clutter over and over again so that it is the same whether you observe it today or tomorrow or next year or in a decade. We need more things to break. To wear out. To die.

So that we can live.

Maybe I can write my way out of this, if writing becomes my strategy for being irresponsible and permitting things to fall into disrepair so that time can begin to exist again—so that I can unpause my biography and fucking get on with it.

— § —

I still think that “listening to the trees” is woo. That’s why we need more of the genuine feminine spirit around. Because somebody needs to listen to the trees, and it can’t be a man, because most of us don’t speak tree. We speak gravity and acceleration and torrent, not tree and moon and scent.

We need to find ourselves again, all of us.

Having reached the center of the room, he sat down and was silent.  §

I’ve been posting comparatively little recently.

That’s because there is nothing to say and no one to say it to.

I have developed understanding of all those middle-aged people I used to think poorly of, who seemed to live life on a dull treadmill of endless busywork, uninspired.

“How are you?”

“Same as yesterday. Same as last week. Same as last month. Same as last year.”

“What have you been up to?”

“Same as yesterday. Same as last week. Same as last month. Same as last year.”

“Any plans?”

“None but to go to bed, then wake up and do it all again tomorrow.”

You need someone to believe in you.  §

A fragmented assortment of thoughts.

— § —

I am neither prone to listening to “new” (as in, post-1999) music, nor to becoming overly emotional in response to… anything. Nor to fits of teen idol angst.

But a band that has mostly already happened, that happened sometime during that period when I was someone else between 2001 and 2015, has taken over much of my emotional universe. Every time I hear Nightwish perform Ghost Love Score or The Greatest Show On Earth, I end up with tears streaming down my face.

— § —

We live in a world that is largely devoid of beauty. We’ve worked very hard to eliminate it since the Enlightenment, and with our tools and science, we’ve been largely successful. When you see it now, it shocks you, like falling to your death, only doing so while at a strange kind of peace.

— § —

Life and growth happen, for a man, because someone believes in you more than you believe in yourself—and you want to live up to their belief and expectations.

So, by that measure, it has been a decent while since I was alive, or growing.

I need that pressure again, that belief that I am not quite sure I can justify. I need someone to think I am better than I believe I am, so that I can become what they think I am.

By that measure, I’ve been dead for years now.

I believe in myself. I can hand you my CV or tell you the ten thousand things about me that make me valuable, even exceptional. But I’m a man. I don’t care about that. I can try, but I don’t. I need something to live up to.

— § —

My son gave me a watering can for my birthday. Now I can keep plants alive. I love the watering can he gave me. I wish I could explain that to him in words that would convey the depth of my appreciation, but he’s 10. I don’t think he’ll be able to understand what it means to me until he’s 30.

— § —

One post a month. That’s all you get, apparently.

Trying to figure out how to generate good outcomes.  §

Sometimes late at night sitting here in the dark I come face to face with the fact that one reason I don’t think about the past very much, and in fact try to forget it altogether, is that I don’t have a lot of good memories that don’t directly lead to bad outcomes.

How many decades has it been since I had a good memory that didn’t culminate in a catastrophic outcome?

I can’t think about it too long. It takes me into the depths. Have to keep moving forward. But I have to also figure out what I’m doing wrong—why I tend toward debt, divorce, and damage at the end of everything.

Ex-wife used to say it’s because I was a born loser. I don’t know if I buy that. But there may be a hint of truth under there somewhere about the way that I make life decisions.

I started out with infinite confidence. Everything since 2015 has continued to batter it. Down on confidence? You bet. But I have skills. I use them every day. I can’t figure it out.

Life is actually only 30-40 years long.  §

Early in your life, your job is to grow up, to learn, to lay the foundation “so that you won’t be behind” and “so that you won’t suffer” when you get older.

By the time you reach your teens, the job is somewhat different. It’s to compete, to accelerate, to build, and when that inevitably doesn’t work out—as it won’t a couple of times—it’s to change things up.

— § —

At some point, you reach adulthood. For most it’s sometime after they turn 30. For a few it’s earlier. For some, later.

You’ll know you’ve reached it because once you reach adulthood, you can no longer do any of those things. You feel unable to learn. Unable to lay new foundations. Unable to alter the fundamental positions in what used to be a competition. Unable to accelerate or to slow down. Unable to build.

You emerge into this extended state in which you live the same day over and over again. The same week over and over again. The same month over and over again.

No matter what you do, you are unable to change the fundamental dynamic.

You move across the country a few times. You change careers a few times. People die. People are born. Major diseases come and go. New cars, cars crashed, new cars again. New homes, homes worn down, new homes again. It doesn’t matter. None of it matters. No matter what you do, you have the same basic financial situation. You have the same basic social situation. You live the same basic life. You have the same basic days.

No matter what you do, you are living in empty time, in which nothing is ever different.

You become desperate to break free, to loosen the rock and get it to roll down the hill, to light the fuse and get the bomb to explode, anything—anything—to change things, because you know that this stasis can’t last forever and what you really want to avoid is being stuck where you are until suddenly, when you’re 65, or 75, or 85, you emerge in an instant, and quite unexpectedly, into the last days of your life, having achieved nothing new, seen nothing new, done nothing new since you were 25, or 35, or whatever age it was since you entered into adulthood.

But it doesn’t matter. No matter how hard you work at doing something you, you can’t. No matter how hard you work at seeing something new, you won’t.

Life really consists of about 15 years of childhood, about 10-15 years of young adulthood, and about 5 years of settling your accounts and dying.

Everything else is this strange period of suspended animation—of extended pause in a closed loop—in the middle.

There are moments when conscience and the past are the same thing.  §

For days now, day by day, I have been lost more and more in memories of that time between ’89 and ’91 and the months that immediately followed.

Humanity had won. We were all in love with each other. It was like we had been only children but now we’d found long-lost siblings and were suddenly awash in the joy of family, of togetherness, of that surprising trust that can sometimes simply happen, for not reason, between people. It was magical. We were all in love with each other, across the oceans. We’d somehow saved humanity after all, all of us together, for all of us.

I have a piece of the Berlin Wall on a bookshelf. Previously it was an artifact but now it feels strange, haunted, as though it has a dark soul that watches me—that watches us—and that passes judgement, foreshadowing some terrible punishment.

How did we lose after all, after everything that happened?

It’s like the way that relationships degrade, become abusive, and then, if you’re not careful, become murderous, even if to start there was so much joy.

We humans are broken. Or I suppose fallen is the word.

In any case, that’s what happened. We lost.

We have lost.

All good things—even the most transcendently good things—must end.

Twenty-two years.  §

This site has been online for twenty-two years. Entire universes have come and gone in that time.

— § —

When I was young I never wanted to be the guy that lived for work, nor did I want to be the guy that lived a dis-integrated life.

So it was that I insisted always on working remotely. On using my own equipment for work. I pursued a career (academics) that would have enabled me to maintain the same identity outside of work that I had inside it. When I had kids, I wanted both parents to participate equally and together in child rearing.

I didn’t want to live a two or six or a dozen separate, compartmentalized lives.

But the forces in today’s world are just too strong. Today there is a work me and a private me. I have work computing equipment and private computing equipment. I did not find a career in academics. I am divorced and so half of the time I am a father and half of the time I am a single guy. I am half of the fertility couple that produced my children and rarely have contact with the other half.

Like everyone, I live a completely fragmented life.

I don’t see how or why we live this way. It’s a recipe for losing track of your life—having it fly by without any way to understand that it’s happening or to capture it in memory and narrative. Instead, it’s a string of unassociated flashbacks and images, not a biography of a single person. Very few people get to be single people any longer.

— § —

We’re in that period between the holidays and the summer during which things seem cold and barren. While driving back from dropping the kids at school today I thought for a moment that I’d write a novel about traveling through barren, snowy areas and that feeling that hangs in the air this time of year in the modern world. Then I realized that Orhan Pamuk already wrote Snow and that I’d just be doing that again only without the pathos and the story.

— § —

I have to go. My other self is knocking at the door since it’s business hours. It’s time for the private, evening self to commit seppuku again and hand pass the torch to the business hours work self.

I remembered what I was feeling the urge to write.  §

I was going to write that I was sad.

It’s not cool in this society to say something like that out loud, much less semi-anonymously into cyberspace.

But 2021 was a year that was full of sadness for me. Of course, for a great many other people as well, but I’m not them so I can only speak to my own 2021. And my own 2021 was a sad year. Not sarcastic ‘sad,’ not Trump sad, but legitimately sad. Like, if I could cry, I would have spent a lot of time crying, but as a guy with hormones I’m incapable so instead I made a bunch of insufferable posts here.

But I’ve been sad. It’s been sad.

And now, taking down the Christmas decorations and heading back into ‘reality,’ a new wellspring of sadness ironically at 2021’s passing.

I am hoping that 2022 can be better, with far less to be sad about, but there are troubling signs on the horizon.

There are indeed times when I wish I didn’t have to be sad alone, but life experience teaches me so far that some of us are always alone, whether other people are around or no. Yes, possibly that’s our own damned fault. Doesn’t mean we know how or have the skills to fix it.

So sadness it is.

That’s the post.

Football metaphors aren’t always bad. In fact, they may be better than most other things.  §

I swear.

All day I thought about making a post, and then it comes to 7:38 in the evening and I realize I’m in danger of not doing it.

That has to stop. That’s the encapsulation of any and all New Year’s resolutions that I have. That sort of thing has to stop. If I think all day about making a post, I damn well need to do it.

— § —

Of course by now, having let things slide for far too long, i can’t remember any of the things I wanted to write. That normally would then become the excuse for inaction. “Owell, I forgot, I guess I’ll do it later.” Wash, rinse, repeat.


— § —

My alma mater went out yesterday and played a hell of a football game. They lost. But they did not lose by failing to live up to their potential; they maximized their potential and they lost anyway. Funny thing, this makes the loss something that I feel proud for them for.

All of this is a bunch of old truism, i.e. there’s no shame in loss if you do your best, but I think people often lose the latter part and shorten it to “there’s no shame in loss,” which is incomplete. Or they take “do your best” to actually and secretly mean “intended to do your best and really ‘put your heart into it.'”

That’s not right either.

Heart isn’t worthless, exactly, but it’s not the key piece of the puzzle. Your best is that which matches your potential. Doing your best isn’t a matter of intent, and it’s not a matter of heart. It’s a matter of hard work and long preparation and discipline and sacrifice. If you have done all of those things, haven’t cut a corner, haven’t phoned it in on this day or that, have legitimately kept your promises to yourself and to others and grown through every last ounce of hard work that you can commit and then you lose—then, and only then is there no shame in it.

Indeed, there’s much pride in it.

— § —

It sounds just a little bit maudlin and high school to be telling football stories and using phrases like “your best” on a blog post when I’m a forty-something, but I’m legitimately inspired by and trying to learn from these guys to start the new year.

Because I grew up in modern America. Every blow is softened. For every erstwhile unsafety there is a safety net. I didn’t join the military and go to boot camp. I didn’t play football for my school. I didn’t ever have to work hard. I had a decent brain through no fault of my own and as a result have been able to skate by and outperform peers since fifth grade without having to do much of anything.

But now, pivoting toward fifty and having used many big and flowery words with the serious and intelligent people and communities of the world, it all seems worthless.

Plain talk. Plain thinking. That’s what I’m after.

And in plain words I have the more-than-nagging-feeling that I could have been, and could still be, so much more than I am.

And there is shame in that kind of loss, and I feel it.

— § —

So my resolution for the new year is to be harder on myself, not in that self-indulgent way, but in that drill sergeant way.

I will fail, possibly for a long time. I have no model for nor practice in this kind of thing.

But I am determined to do my best.

One small step toward that is actually turning up to make the post I thought off and on about all day, even if I forgot what I was going to say, rather than kicking it to an eternal tomorrow.

Let’s fucking get some things together, team.

At the end of some years, there aren’t so very many words.  §

I’ve had this tradition of making a long, wordy post to end the year.

I’m running out of patience with my past self, and with words. Here are some things, and I think we can leave it after that:

  • There are way too many words in our society just now. A lot of talk—talk, talk, talk, words, words, words, most of it bullshit. I have come to realize that I’m as guilty of this as everyone else. We made ourselves these word-centric systems like social media and proceeded to fill them up. Mistake. The words have taken the place of actions, morals, decisions, understandings. It’s vapid. I’m vapid. We’re all vapid. Say less, do more.

  • On that front, I have had a terrible 2021 in most every way. But a lot of that is due to exactly the above—thinking I was doing a lot of things when in fact I was just saying a lot of things, like everyone. Which is ironic in my case because I don’t even have that many people to say things to. But the dark magic of our social media age is that you can blather on indefinitely to nobody at all and your circuits think you’re talking and mistake that for real stuff.

  • What I have learned since exiting the academy and getting divorced has become clear to me, and I think I can get it out in a bullet. Truth exists. Truth cannot be explained or detailed in words. Truth is suffering and suffering is meaning. Truth is not entirely material. Children are the only thing that matter. God likely exists, because hell clearly exists. Providing reasoned critiques of this in words is a loser’s game, like saying that apples are a pale imitation of television. Well, yes.

  • My resolutions for 2022 are simple: talk less and do things. It doesn’t even really matter all that much which things. Just things, and actual doing. Not talking about doing, not considering doing, not evaluating-the-possibility-of-doing-as-a-form-of-doing. Actual doing of things, offline, beyond symbolic culture—beyond words, beyond code, beyond images, beyond screens.

  • The world is going to get worse in 2022. And worse again in 2023 and then a whole lot worse in 2024.

  • Living in truth is not a mental thing. It’s a physical thing. Life is not a mental thing. It’s a physical thing. The only things that really matter are not mental things. They are physical things. In fact, mental things, too, are ultimately physical things—just an impoverished category of them.

  • The pope make a mistake on the Latin mass question. (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.) But he has made a lot of mistakes.

  • Most of you are already trapped in the matrix, as I have been. Escape will not be easy, but unless I escape, 2022 will be as terrible as 2021.

  • In all these years, I have learned next to nothing. I have much—very, very much—to learn.

Happy new year.

The academics are fighting over crumbs while Ganon threatens Hyrule.  §

Every year since I-don’t-know-when I’ve done this “year-end post” thing.

It’s about time to start cooking mine up for this year I suppose. I’m not sure to refer back to previous years to get a flavor for what I have done in the past (because for the first time, instinct really just isn’t carrying me there) or whether to just wing it.

I guess I’ll find out over the next few days which wins.

— § —

Among the other things worth noting this year is that 2021 is the year that I started playing video games again. There were accidents and disasters and then we all got COVID and somewhere in the middle of it, as everyone was laid up and reeling, I noticed that my kids were playing this game on their Switch units that spoke to me somehow. I asked my son if I could mess around for a bit and before you know it, I was playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Like, a lot.

Throughout my COVID recovery and then the rest of fall I played it, without spoilers, until I finished the game and nearly all of the tasks. It is amazingly deep. It almost immediately joined this category of “gaming experiences that stick with me as life memories.” This category also includes:

  • Riven

  • Nethack

  • Pac-Man on Atari 2600 (used to play this with my dad)

  • Original 1980 Star Wars arcade (first serious video game experience)

Don’t get confused about this list, I’ve played a lot of games. As in, a lot. But most of it dates back to the ’90s and early ’00s and I haven’t really played anything since maybe 2011—that is, until the second half of this year.

— § —

I stopped gaming for two basic reasons:

  • Games were less and less fun and more and more just about polygons and FPS

  • Serious academics don’t play video games

I’m embarrassed to admit the second one, but I spent half my life swimming upstream against an army of people spread across the continent who said I’d never make it and that I wasn’t serious—and I was determined to prove them wrong.

I’m ultimately not sure whether I did or not… I did get my PhD and I was a professor for a time, which I think are the two things they meant I’d never accomplish. But at the same time, by 2021 I haven’t used my PhD for anything in ages and I haven’t been a professor for eight years. So did I make it or didn’t I? Hard to say.

What I can say is that I was absolutely tuned in to playing the “serious” academic game in which you are working hard to be “competitive” and to “embody” the role.

In practice this means pitched, highly political, often vitriolic and underhanded battles between aspiring academics and other aspiring academics, and between aspiring academics and other aspiring academics’ faculty advisors. The battles are all-encompassing and deeply bloody and brutal, and if you’re going to survive, you can’t be spending your time playing video games—you have to dedicate your whole self to survival and coming out on top.

The funny thing is that despite how seriously academics take these battles, and how convinced academics are that they are Very Important and that The Future of Humanity may rest on each one, in fact they are completely invisible to the real world.

The academics are fighting each other for supremacy over each other in the end, though they don’t realize it—not for anything in the real world.

In the real world, the global video game industry drives $350-$400 billion in sales every single year, just shy of the accumulated total endowments of the entire Ivy League put together.

In other words, all those people coming home from work and playing Breath of the Wild (which is, incidentally, the greatest video game I have ever played, hands down) are the real world; the academics who are sure they’re fighting The Important Battles in the Real World are, in fact, off in la-la land engaged with each other in battles that are entirely irrelevant to anything.

They’re like rats fighting each other in the basement crawlspace under a house. They’re battling each other to the death over spoils that must seem all-important to them (say, a bit of granola that fell down a furnace vent), but in fact the real action in the house is much larger and elsewhere, and is entirely unaware of the rats—and wouldn’t care to worry about them if it somehow did become aware.

— § —

Anyway, back to video games.

Post finishing Zelda, I was at a weird loose end. I’d acquired this Nintendo Switch and it seemed silly to use it just to play a single game and be done with it. So I hit the Nintendo e-Shop to see what else was on offer (and on sale) and came up with Hades, which I am continuing to play regularly. And now I’ve acquired another half dozen or so titles—whatever is on sale in the shop for $2-$4 in a given week.

So I guess I’m gaming again, at least by my measure. And I think I am enjoying it as much as I ever enjoyed academics—especially the part where I don’t feel guilty about it any longer. (Well, at least not in the same way.)

That’s the 2021 factoid for the night.

Cool is the first thing to go when you join the ranks of the sinners.  §

So I was having this chat with an old friend about how when we were younger, we were cool. Reckless and invincible and effortless and cool and everything was easy—everything. Yet somewhere along the way, we’d lost it.

And at first, for a day or so, I was thinking that this was because when you’re young you have nothing to lose, but as you get older, you do. You can’t afford to be devil-may-care any longer because the things that you do actually affect other people, and because it begins to matter whether a risk was a good risk or a bad risk, whether you’re up to the task or not. When you’re young, it’s easy to take on any challenge with a smirk, because nothing in particular is at stake.

I was ever-so-subtly wrong.

Tonight I realize that cool goes not when you have something to lose, but when you have lost. When you have suffered. When you have, in fact, let people down, failed at the task, had to face the consequences of your failures.

If you have any god damn brains when you’re older, you realize that cool is unbecoming. Swagger is unbecoming. Because by the time you reach middle age, if you’ve lived at all, you’ve also fucked up. People have paid the price. Things have gone wrong. You and others around you have suffered and suffered greatly for your sins and your conceits.

Once that’s hung around someone’s neck, it takes either an asshole or an idiot to swagger around like a pirate. Humility doesn’t come from the stakes. Humility comes from having lost it all, and indeed from having lost it all for others as well. Once you carry the weight of souls around with you, you can no longer slice through life like you own it because that would be ugly and because you bear that weight every day, everywhere you go.

That’s the transition from the cocky young guy to the quiet old guy. Both are equally capable, but the quiet old guy keeps his mouth shut. He knows that capability doesn’t count for shit; you’ve crushed people and things you loved and you’ll likely do it again before your life is done, no matter how capable you are, because those are the stakes, because that’s what happens.

He keeps his mouth shut and he does his job and he tells people younger than him that he hopes they win, even though by now he knows better.

That’s the generation gap. Young folk think older folk are cowards and idiots because young folk, contrary to what they imagine about themselves, are as pure as the driven snow.

Making peace with the choices you’ve made isn’t easy.  §

I’m not writing a lot.

Mostly because there’s so much to write about. Thing is, you pass a certain threshold and if you bother to jot down how you feel you’ll just be complaining all the time.

I need to fix that, but I lack… something. I’m not sure what.

In the social media era, there’s no shortage of people out there loudly describing the success that they have and the way that they have it. Hard work, discipline, ambition, etc. I’m just not into it.

I don’t care enough.

They say that your preferences are evidenced in your choices, whatever it is you say out loud about yourself or the way you want your life to go. If you look at my life, then, what I am mostly giving evidence of is a desire to stand pat, despite the fact that I’m not thrilled about where I’m standing.

Risk aversion fits in here somewhere.

I’m just tired of problems. I’m familiar with the problems I already have and have had, and what I don’t want is any new ones, because I have the vague idea that if I were to encounter any new problems, I’d just want to quit. Everything.

I’ve had it.

I’ve got every standard problem that an American person can have. Failure to completely launch. A boatload of student loans. Underachievement due to choices I made about the course of my life. A life that resulted in divorce, and now single parenthood. I have a stodgy, computer-centric 9-to-5 that leaves me sitting on my ass all day. I’m out of shape and don’t work out or watch my diet enough.

Basically, despite having started out to rule the world and making great progress toward it for a while, I’ve ended up where the average American ends up.

I also don’t particularly want a better life. It is dawning on me that I was raised lower-middle class and that’s what I’m comfortable with. I don’t want a shiny, brand-spanking-new house and a bunch of swanky functions and cocktail parties to go to.

I want a cluttered, aging house, a car I can work on myself, an average yard, and evenings watching football in the winter and episodes of whatever is random in the summer. I just don’t want to live like “the beautiful people.” If I can’t be in a position to be where the power brokers are, I just want to grab Taco Bell a lot of the time and basically piddle around.

The problem of course is that I’d like to piddle around better, but that’s not really how it works. You do better by adopting a different lifestyle that I’m not really prepared to adopt. There is no “better lower middle class,” there is only “better as in Whole Foods and clean windows.” They go hand-in-hand.

What does this mean for my future? I’m not sure.

I’ve been encouraged to date a lot but I don’t really find myself interested in any of the people I’ve seen, much less met. On the one side there’s the Whole Foods and Instagram crowd. On the other side it’s bad grammar and poor educational attainment.

I think to really be happy in a relationship any longer, I’d have to find another academic flame-out in the same mold: I wanted to rule the world at one point and could have with “higher-end” decisions, but in the end I settled for Taco Bell and a used car.

There aren’t many women out there like that—women who can talk Dostoyevsky and the Frankfurt School and who understand every dependent clause in a long sentence and use large words astutely, but who also aren’t busy making sure they have an Instagram-worthy house and really just want to play checkers while watching the game.

It’s a dying breed.

Where I think I really belong is in the “absent-minded professor” population. Small town, regular life, just read a few more books and everyone wants to hang out with them. That’s not really a thing anymore, and likely won’t be again.

So it is what it is.

I’m dying alone someday. Oh well, maybe we’ll have won a natty by then. Probably not, but a guy can dream while he putters around the house buried in debt.