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

When you need a plan, the last thing you need is a plan.  §

I have these moments where I think, “What I need is a plan. A plan to get back on the horse. A plan to pull it back together. A five year plan. A one year plan. A ten year plan. Whatever. A plan.”

And then the next moment, when I think about doing it, I feel tired.

I feel tired, tired, tired.

So tired.

Too much living. Too many things. Too many people.

When life was simpler, lives were livable.

But now?

How many people can you love and lose? How many towns can you live in and leave? How many caskets can you carry? How many memories, tragedies, diaries, trajectories can one lifetime hold?

How much is too much?

I’m tired. Do I want to make a plan? Do I care to make a plan?

For what purpose? To do it all over again?

I’m tired of loving people. I’m tired of living places. I don’t like where I am, but the proverbial definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.

How many plans have there been?

How many books have I written? How many degrees have I earned? How many homes have I outfitted? Plan after plan after plan, executed over decades.

I always end up here. What will be different this time?

I know, I know. Try a different genre of plan. As in, way different (I mean, I’ve done the date a dominatrix and the move to New York with $200 to your name and the promise to write a book in a month without knowing how things).

Join a monastery? Hike from the top of Alaska to the souther tip of Chile with only the clothes on my back?

I mean, I’m not twenty any longer.

Somebody drop the meaning of life in my lap, please.

I have a lot to give but no fucking way to give it.

Why do things happen the way that they happen? Why do lives turn out differently?  §

Sometimes you can fight despair gently.

But sometimes gently won’t get you there.

Sometimes you have to fight despair with every last thing that you have.

I am fighting despair with every last thing that I have.

— § —

Here’s a nod to all the things that I won’t write. The things that you can’t say on your blog or anywhere else for that matter because they would make other people like you less and because they would make you like yourself less.

The things that you think anyway, even though this is the case and you won’t write them down or admit to it.

Here’s to being sad about the way that life has turned out so far. About all the times you choose and pursue and win the wrong triumphs. Some people do that a lot. I’m one of them. They’re wrong because they don’t get you anything in the end and because later on you regret them.

Here’s to being lonely and getting lonelier each time a new face is added to your life somhow.

Here’s to the self-indulgent feeling that some people are just cursed by destiny.

— § —

Some people are designed to be happy, and they are.

Some people are designed to be sad, and they are.

I’ve had some very high highs in my life, but they don’t seem durable. They don’t last for me. Even things that people say are the “enduring” highs that we’re supposed to pursue. Family. Education. Health. And so on.

They didn’t endure for me, even though they did for other people.

But I suppose I’m still lucky in a way.

I haven’t been diagnosed with a brain tumor or lost a loved one to a car accident. Thank God.

But I confess to significant envy of the people that went to college, got an advanced degree, got a good job, got married, had kids, bought a house, grew a 401k, took out a giant life insurance policy, and how have nice barbecues or weekends on their boat on Lake Powell.

I went to college, got an advanced degree, got a good job, got married, had kids, got hated, got threatened, got divorced, ended up in a mountain of debt, own nothing, have no 401k, have no life insurance, and now think I will be working at 80 while my ex is out having nice barbecues or weekends on their boat on Lake Powell.

What sin did I commit?

I was a damned good husband. And I’m a damned good father. And I won awards with my advanced degree. And I wrote a bunch of books. And everyone always congratulates me and tells me they look up to me.

So why can’t I have a good middle class life?

— § —

I guess it’s just not on the cards for some people. Fate’s a bitch.

No. No, it isn’t. Stop asking.  §

I don’t know what this is for.

There was a time, once, when writing was my outlet. There was a time, once, when shooting was my outlet.

Pen and camera in hand, I lived my life at a distance, at a remove, so that I could cope with it.

Chicago, Portland, Los Angeles, New York, schools, road trips, drug trips, bad relationships, endless bottles of alcohol, tattoos, degrees, research projects, career twists.

There were, here and there, flowers. Clear, dark nights walking in the city alone. Rainstorms. Bundles of concrete and steel tucked away in the nooks of the endless map. Miles and miles and forests and forests and cities and cities.

There were moments to cling to, things to anchor to from a distance—from behind a pen, from behind a lens—and to hold on to for dear life.

— § —

This isn’t an outlet any longer.

There is no outlet. No outlet that can cope. No outlet that can help me to cope.

The rain falls and the wind blows and more rain falls and more wind blows and the leaves are torn from the branches and the branches from the trees and the trees from the frightened earth and the earth from the substrate of being and all swirl and swirl and clamor and rush in the tremendous fury of the tragedy.

— § —

The tragedy, our state of being, the nature of our world. The tragedy.

I can live in darkness. I can cope with a bleak world of suffering and hate, of the song of destruction wailing always and everywhere amidst twisted figures of suffering and deformity and decay, blah, blah. I can drink with the devil.

I can live in light. I can cope with a sparkling world of echoing giggles and the scent of lemons and springtime, in which creation bubbles forth in endless fertility and naive ecstasy in simply being. I can drink with God.

But these are not our world.

No.

It is the both that I can’t cope with. That I have no outlet for. Both.

Both.

Fucking both. Always both.

Innocence forever arising anew from heaven only to be fed to the slaughter, without understanding, without guile, without cause. Laughter giving way to cynicism giving way to the demonic. Springs of purity feeding cataclysmic mountains of corruption that race ever skyward, a symphony of mold and blood and feces and rotting, defingered arms and socketed faces conducted by the devil himself, virtuoso and maestro.

It is the fallen world that I can’t cope with.

The fallen world.

— § —

There is no outlet from the fallen world and there is no escape from the fallen world.

The world in which all good things must end.

The world in which every innocent babe becomes Judas, Machiavelli, Jekyll and Hyde, and ultimately corpse in due course.

This is unacceptable.

In an unacceptable world, there is no outlet that matters. All outlets are merely ways of feeding diseased effluence into a dying sea whose death is never complete, whose suffering can never be slowed.

— § —

No, this is not a suicide note. I am always asked. For thirty years or more I have been asked, every time I reach the familiar impasse.

“Is this a suicide note?”

No.

“Are you okay?” they always ask.

No. No I am not okay. No, I have never been okay. Not for a single day for as long as I can remember, since before I can remember, since before I could speak a word, have I been okay.

Who is okay in a fallen world?

Who is “okay?”

“What can I do? Who can help?”

I mean, what is the purpose of these questions?

“Who can help” is the eternal question, since time immemorial, since the dawn of man. The answers are Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. That’s who can “help.”

There is no help to be had.

Gravity pulls in one direction only. The fall is the fall.

We fall forever.

”I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

— § —

”A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows us an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.”

— § —

”History, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness.”

— § —

Every assassination, every cancer, every treachery, every unmarked grave, every cold case, every unheard cry in the darkness is proof that truth always wins out in the end.

Requiem.  §

The kids got COVID at school.
Then, my ex-wife and her husband got COVID.
Then, I got COVID.
Then, all hell broke loose.

— § —

At first, it was, “I think we might just be okay.”
Then, “I think I have gone crazy.”
Then, “Maybe I won’t go crazy?”
Now, “This is what it is like to go crazy, little bit little, with no means by which to stop it.”

— § —

There is no reality.
There is no reality.

Nothing that you take to be real is real. The ground beneath your feet and the rolling sky above your head are not there. You think they’re there, you may even be sure they’re there, you may even test your theory and physically find them to be there, and so they will appear to be there—until the day on which they suddenly disappear without warning.

And it will happen. It will happen to you.

Life, in this world of unrealities, is fundamentally a story of loss:

You are born.

Every day you lose something, some days more than others.

Some days large amounts of meat are torn directly from your trembling heart.

And ultimately, once it is all taken from you, you die.

— § —

Always remember that no matter how bad you think today is, today is already and fleetingly “the good times, before so very much was lost.”

It is an iron law of the universe that you reach tomorrow with less than you had today. So enjoy whatever hell you inhabit—because it is inevitably tomorrow’s paradise, achingly lost.

— § —

You are going crazy, too.

Some of you just don’t know it yet.

Reality is unacceptable and truths are hard.  §

It has been a long time since I posted anything. Things are not going well.

— § —

It has been a bad week.
It has been a bad month.
It has been a bad year.
It has been a bad decade.

— § —

One likes to think that “oh, the worst must surely be over by now, whatever comes next will be better.”

So far, this has proven not to be a working bit of hopetry.

There’s no reason to post this. But I will anyway.  §

I don’t know exactly how long it’s been, but I sense that it’s been a while. In a way, it hardly matters; very few people read here any longer. It’s not the late ’90s or early ’00s now. People have moved on in the ways that they connect with one another.

Just as well, as this entry is not going to be pleasant. It’s not that I have a dastardly plan, just that there have been so very many posts written in my head over the course of a day over the last weeks and months, and I can’t think of one of them that wasn’t ultimately sour in taste—so much so that over and over I’ve decided not to bother to even type them in.

— § —

I said this to someone in passing recently, but as I was walking the dog today it occupied me for some time: the social contract has been largely swept away.

Now I’m not naive enough to imagine that any social contract is ever stable. Social systems as such, even the most repressive ones, have a kind of dynamism and an intrinsic process of emergent social norming that together ensure that from generation to generation, indeed from year to year, the social contract evolves.

Nonetheless, there are degrees; there is evolution, and then there is violation or complete disregard.

There is a way to tell the story of my life in which the single thread that binds it all together—across neighbors, community leaders, family members, teachers, friends, significant others, forgetting for a moment about policymakers and administrators—is the free-falling experience of over and over again finding that the mutual obligations upon which I based my choices were not to be adhered to by others when the time came.

Yes, I know. Whine, whine.

But the thing is, I want you to step back a step. Don’t read it as being “about me,” but rather as “about anyone.” I said “tell the story of my life” above but what I see as relevant is not that I am the protagonist in this particular story, but that I increasingly think it is a story that has been playing out for one or several generations across the board. That is to say that it isn’t just the story of my life, but the story of a society—a society in which the social contract is collapsing.

A society of proliferating mass shootings, riots, corruption, relativism, “wellness-seeking,” and all the wrong kinds of “forgiveness.” That is to say—forgiveness not as a transcendental thing but as reluctant denial maintenance in the face of helpless disappointment and betrayal. We must all forgive because what else is there to do in such a society? The only alternative is to admit that we have been wronged and that we will continue to be wronged and that this is in fact equitable repayment for our own lazy wrongs in the same key, and that this train will not be stopped.

The alternative to this kind of “forgiveness” is, in many practical ways, the flame and the bullet. And avoiding those seems at least expedient and sensible at a superficial level.

Of course, the universe does not operate at a superficial level—

— § —

Still, at a personal level, you can’t live your life by legal contract; you have to do your best to uncover others’ values through interaction and frank discussion and then trust them and your understanding of them or, alternatively, decide not to do so.

I was born a trusting kid.

But as anyone (say, my closest friends or my ex-wife) can tell you, as an adult I’m something of a misanthrope. I’m sure this is largely why.

Call it my own naiveté or bad decision making, or say it’s because my brain is broken and I’m frankly autistic and unfit to comprehend human feelings as my wife once frequently did in public at my expense before she became my ex-wife (Am I wrong, for example, to read that as a violation of some implicit contract between man and wife?), the fact remains that I just don’t like people all that much because it looks to me as though—even when I’m not involved in an interaction and just observing their relations with others—people are generally amoral creatures out to glorify themselves at the expense of others.

More to the point, and this is new over the last decade or so, I have the feeling that contra this evaluation of my own, they’d say that in fact all of the things that they did were tremendously ethical, moral, and right, and that it’s my antiquated understanding of human obligation, which somehow gave us the Crusades and colonialism and the Holocaust, and whatever else, that is not just immoral but in fact frightening.

— § —

I find most people to be, in short, rather inhuman today, and I find this state of things to be accelerating.

Most people today would argue precisely the opposite—that people of the contemporary west and indeed all of modern, enlightened society, not to mention the society itself, are more human than they’ve ever been.

My response to that is:

You cannot become more human when you do not even know what human is.

It is my position that they do not know what human is.

And that someday soon, they will—the vast majority of them—be shocked and aggrieved to find that the story really does end with their death, which they’d always read rather like the claims on laundry detergent boxes: a lot of sound and fury untied to any actual real-world phenomena.

— § —

I have graduated to the treadmill.

When I was young every single teen boy, down to a one, swore earnestly that he’d never get on the corporate treadmill, never be part of the rat race, never fade away somewhere in suburbia working his nine-to-five job, unappreciated by community, unappreciated by wife (or worse, divorced and alone), subject of a largely forgotten existence as a tiny cog in a spectacularly vast and impersonal economic machine.

I can’t deny that that’s now me. I’ve finally arrived.

Like the rest, I set out to do something more, to be something intentional, to find a story or a hero’s journey that made life worth the price of entry.

I made it farther than many. I lived in all of the most interesting of our major North American cities. I both authored and edited books. I dated interesting and diverse people. I had drinks inside circles of power. I got advanced degrees and more advanced degrees. I started companies and social media platforms. I attended conferences overseas and married exotic foreigners. I was paid by universities, dot-coms, think tanks, and governments. I actually turned down a job at the United Nations.

But time has caught up to me, as it catches up to everyone.

Now I have to admit that for months at least, I travel forward in time with no intelligible story at all to tell. I wake up. I work a nine-to-five corporate job of no particular consequence outside the company itself. I finish late. I eat one of the same four or five things I always eat. I go to bed. I do it all again.

Being a parent carried me for some time—there is an intrinsic heroism and unpredictability in parenting that can mask the stasis in life that lies beneath.

But at length your children grow old enough that most of the time they neither want nor need any particular input from you. Mine are there. And that is, of course, right and proper. They increasingly find their own friends, their own hobbies, their own paths into life.

As my children accelerate into this new stage, even though it’s relatively early days yet, what’s left behind is just me and whatever it is that I have, in the meantime, become.

And what I have become is the guy who looks back at the things I say I’ve done in life and can’t quite believe that any of that is or was ever real, because the current state of my life is very simply that: I wake up. I work a nine-to-five corporate job of no particular consequence outside the company itself. I finish late. I eat one of the same four or five things I always eat. I go to bed. I do it all again.

There is something else there, beneath the surface. It waxes and wanes. At times I can access it, though I don’t know what to do with it. In recent weeks and months I can’t once again. I have the vexing feeling of waiting and a vexing uncertainty about whether I am waiting on myself or waiting on God, and about whether this waiting is the right thing.

— § —

Lack of companionship has been a constant problem since two years into my eight-year marriage. I’ve been alone and largely ignored for a very, very long time.

It’s not existential for me. Things frankly might be somewhat better if it were. I can go about my daily business and be fine. In fact, it’s eminently compatible with the misanthropic outlook that I struggle with. I’m sure a therapist would have all kinds of things to say here about defense mechanisms and so on, but of course the problem with therapists is that they’re not interested in moral principles and objective meaning, they’re interested in yoga, wellness, and subjective meaning. They’re false prophets, in other words, and I’ve had enough of those.

But it’s true that, as a few kind women have noted but not wanted to directly say over the last couple of decades, I seem lonely. I sure do.

Problem is that I struggle to meet anyone that it’s both appropriate to incorporate into my life and that I at the same time want to incorporate into my life. No, I’m not talking about dating eighteen-year-olds or anything like that. I’m talking about the apparent tensions between propriety, availability, and reasoned desirability.

I’m rather determined to meet what I see to be my obligations even if virtually everyone in the world tells me that they’re not my obligations. This severely limits the dating pool from the start on a simply demographic basis at my age. Pair this with the fact that most of the population of women at any age are now living their Instagram Best Life and are thus, frankly, rather off-putting if not outright disgusting, and there’s just not anyone left to talk to.

— § —

All of this is not to say that I don’t know any great people. I do know some truly great people. Most of them are younger than me, and I get to play something between mentor and elder community member for them. A few others are married.

But it is true that most of the people out there today are not people I want much to do with. Granted, a certain amount of this is a matter of the rotten values that they hold that are themselves transient, the result of a deeply evil zeitgeist more than of the individuals themselves.

Yet there’s also an unattractive story in that fact, since it implies that the individuals themselves are not made of particularly strong stuff—do not, as a general rule, have much in the way of structural fibre or integrity.

No, as my ex-wife points out, people aren’t perfect and it’s unfair to expect them to be, but what I generally can’t cope with is the degree to which everyone is so blasé or even gleeful about their imperfections and narcissisms now, the latter two now often consciously argued to be virtues, despite what I read as subconscious doubt about this position.

If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, is the self-righteous individual proclaiming to be their virtues all of the things that are so very clearly their vices.

If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, in other words, it’s an entire society of pervasive lies.

Close behind is “self-forgiveness,” which I find to be an abhorrent concept. It is for others to forgive us. It is for God to forgive us. It is not for us to forgive ourselves. That’s more of the bullshit being sold by therapists, who have done at least as much to destroy western civilization as the last several U.S. presidents.

Not sure how we got from relationships to lies, but whatever.

Point being: There are times when I distinctly believe that I can see through people. I couldn’t always, but in the last few years, I am often sure that I can. I don’t like it. I’d rather not. I know some great ones. But not many. The rest I will avoid.

— § —

I could sit here and do this for hours and hours and for many hundreds of pages. As I mentioned, it’s a large assortment, that assortment of blog posts that have passed through me without being keyed in over the last several months.

But as I also mentioned, most of them were variations on a theme, and the theme was not a particularly edifying or positive one, so I let them pass into the oblivion of the mental past.

This one is here because it’s been a while, and at some point to think of so many posts over so many days and type none of them in also feels like lying.

In short, it was time to put something here that was new.

So here it is.

— § —

Have I become something of the trad, cloistered monk, ranting and raving from within the walls about everything revolting happening without? Yes, yes I have.

Does that make me a hypocrite? I can’t tell but I leave open the possibility. It is for others and for God, not for me, to judge.

Do I have anything else to say today?

I don’t think I ought. Do you?

Let’s call that a “no,” then.

Here’s how the song of the divorced goes.  §

“My family was hell on earth, so I got divorced.
Now my family is paradise
but I’m doomed to suffer losing it over and over again
every few days,
for the rest of time.”

At 45 years old, you don’t get to have imaginary friends any longer.  §

Turning 45 tomorrow.

Found myself listening to Ben Folds songs, starting with “Still Fighting It.”

Spent all day working to finish the remodel on what will be my daughter’s bedroom.

Decided to make a blog post. Then decided that I didn’t have the internal resources to do it, felt like I didn’t want to confront what I was thinking or feeling.

Came to make the post anyway.

Don’t actually know what I’m thinking or feeling. If there was a therapist here they would say it’s because I’m in denial and need to access something or open up and get in touch with or some stupid nonsense like that.

In fact, I don’t know because there’s not one thing, there are a million things. Like:

  • How can I be 45?
  • Isn’t it bad to be 45 and be alone?
  • But I’m not really alone, I have my kids, right?
  • Ah, but will I always? I have an ex that’s a wildcard, and also they’ll grow up, no?
  • Isn’t it bad to mention kids in a discussion of not being alone? Seems harmful, right?
  • But can I really stand to date anyone? Haven’t I generally found that I hate it and that the people out there are shallow?
  • But does that matter?
  • Do I want to have better birthday plans than I have?
  • Do I like my life as it’s played out, or do I hate it?
  • How many years do I have left?
  • Do I care how I feel about my life? And if not, why not?
  • And is that question too meta to have any meaning?
  • And how do I feel about the weeks stretching into months stretching into years stretching into decades on the work treadmill?
  • But isn’t that what everyone ends up doing?
  • And is there really an alternative anyway?
  • And don’t I actually appreciate the job that I have and the accomplishments I’ve made?
  • And isn’t this too many rhetorical questions? What does it mean that I phrase everything in terms of rhetorical questions?
  • What does it mean that I ask what it means?
  • Should I go to bed right now and have an early night, or should I stay up late and read a book?
  • Won’t I regret it tomorrow if I stay up late and read a book?
  • Has that ever stopped me before?
  • What happens to the souls of your childhood imaginary friends once you stop imagining them?
  • What do I feel about turning 45?
  • Well?

That’s as far as I’ve gone so far, seems to be a brick wall. But now I can be satisfied that I’ve made a post, scratched that particular itch, and it wasn’t all that bad.

I think turning 45 is somehow much more psychologically disruptive.

End.

Knit caps may be the only things that don’t age, though they do ultimately always get lost.  §

When I was younger, I loved old things. Not too old, mind—not antiques. Just things old enough to show wear.

In fact, so long as they showed sufficient wear, so long as they were ratty and scratched enough, even a little bit of age did the job. They needed to look, in other words, aged.

That’s the particular insecurity of the young.

Every young person vies with every other young person for authority, for importance and the deference of others. Deference is given to those who are worldly wise—who have seen some things. Those who know.

There is no better way to demonstrate this particular quality when you’re young but to wear and be surrounded by things that demonstrate just how much battle you have seen, how many times you’ve been around the world on barely-maintained trains in forgotten countrysides where once there was this war or that one, and so on.

Never mind that as a teen or young twenty-something, it’s all likely a pose.

It’s instinctive. You want to be one of the silverbacks.

— § —

Now that I’m racing down the other side of the hill, my relationship to old things—particularly to my old things—is far more complicated.

Now things are old just because they’ve been around long enough to see decay. Now they are reminders that I, too, have seen decay.

That’s a hard pill to swallow at times.

And yet at the same time, things that have grown old are also things that are familiar, that are part of you, that are domestic and comfortable.

There’s a very strange feeling that I don’t have a word for when I look around now and see, for example, that paint job that I did that was once so fresh and white and new and is now ratty and scratched and shows all the signs of having been lived-with.

To see the light fixture that I installed, now with a dent and covered in dust, or the car that was once a bundle of shiny surfaces and clean, straight edges now a matter of fading paint and bumps and irregularities.

They’re the things of my life; they hold memories of myself and my children, I liked them (even loved them in some cases) and continue to do so.

And—

They’re things in the throes of death, they are evidence that those beloved versions of self and children have also passed long away, never to return, and part of me itches to replace them, even as another part of me silently cries out with some sort of pathetic longing for something closer to immortality.

— § —

But it is what it is.

— § —

I’m in the middle of painting and flooring another room.

If there’s one constant since my divorce, it’s that I’m in the middle of painting and flooring a room. I think that’s what happens when you divorce; something in you snaps and begins to crave the smell of volatile organic compounds and after that you compulsively fill your existence with them, painting and flooring like a madman without even realizing it.

— § —

I’m also in the middle of living my last… month? quarter? year? weekend?

…with my dog. She continues to do “okay but not great” as has been the state of things for at least three weeks now. It’s now been five weeks since the emergency surgery that saved her life but also revealed the presence of a large tumor—since removed, but believed by the doctor to likely be malignant.

It continues to be unclear what works and what doesn’t.

It continues to be clear that sometimes she feels well and happy and sometimes she doesn’t.

— § —

Here’s how my life works.

Every time I’ve gone outside since the first chill of fall, I pause at the door and think, “I should put on that knit cap I have.”

Then, I look around the entry area for it, can’t find it, and at some point think, “Oh, right. I think it’s in the car. I’ll put it on when I get in.”

Between the door and the car, I forget entirely, and when I get into the car and sit down, I don’t put it on.

I couldn’t if I tried, because in fact every time I return to my office, sit down, and start to use this keyboard, I spot said knit cap sitting next to my keyboard and think, “why in the world is that in here…I need to take it back to the entryway when I head that direction.”

The next time I head that direction, of course, I don’t even remember that I’ve had the thought.

So here the knit cap has been, beside my keyboard since October as I type.

And my head has been uncovered the entire time when outside.

That’s how my life works.

Building and unraveling are the two things that happen in life.  §

There are two phases in life, the building phase and the unraveling phase.

These alternate.

For a time, with no particular emergencies or contingencies to force your hand, you build. Always you think you are “finally making progress.”

You aren’t, because such a phase is inevitably followed by an unraveling phase. Something unexpected happens. Usually, actually, multiple unexpecteds happen, because the first unexpected diverts your attention from other things you ought to be doing, and soon as a result multiple unexpected things are happening. This is an unraveling phase, during which any progress you’ve made during a building phase is torn down.

Your “finally making progress” gives way to “giving up all the ground you thought you’d gained” as you try to address the crises that seem suddenly to be everywhere.

— § —

We’ve been in an unraveling phase for some time now. Well, actually we’ve been in a large-scale unraveling phase for six years here, but there have been smaller alternations between building and unraveling happening throughout.

Starting in December, a small building phase I’d managed to keep going despite everything throughout 2020 gave way. The dam finally burst, and suddenly everything, everywhere was unraveling. It’s torn me back down to essentially zero. Zero after climbing for more than a year and thinking that maybe—just maybe—I was finally about to emerge into daylight.

It’s been hard. Very hard.

But today at least, I have two working bathrooms again. The clog in the drain behind the wall has been snaked out with a new plumbing snake and both bathrooms have been cleaned, top to bottom, and are working properly.

That’s a start, dammit.

It had better be a start toward starting to build again.

When you’re in the thick of death, try to find God, not television.  §

I’m not normally a television viewer. Not for years.

One reason for this is the uncomfortable feeling that I am perhaps too drawn to it in certain ways. Not to every program, not to just “what’s on” by any stretch of the imagination.

No, something darker than that.

Every now and then I stumble across a program—or, when things are bad, I seek out a program—where the characters and the environs feel comfortable to me. Not like home, necessarily, but—say—more comfortable than my real environs and supporting characters at the moment.

And that’s when I try to move in.

I’m blogging tonight to stop, or at least, to interrupt just such a moment.

— § —

My companion animals—my pets—are dying left and right. Not from neglect, but from things like cancer that can happen regardless of the choices that you make in life.

The kids aren’t here.

I’ve had to go back to work after an extended break.

Things aren’t comfortable, to say the least. So I find one mindless show or another and watch an episode. And then, before you know it, I’ve watched dozens of episodes, and I’m watching them in multiples every night.

Basically, I find myself trying to move out of reality and move in to the screen, because it seems like a better place to be. Better environs, better supporting characters, different and perhaps more pliable problems.

— § —

This is not a good strategy. It’s not even good entertainment.

Do you want to know how many episodes of “Beat Bobby Flay” I’ve watched this week? It’s got to be 50 already, in the space of three days.

That has to stop, because there’s no excuse for it. It’s so bad I need to post about it here to really embarrass myself in hopes of putting an end to it.

— § —

Of course that means that I have to sit here in silence in this room, pecking things out on this keyboard and waiting for work to arrive in the morning, accompanied by a sick and likely terminal dog that I constantly evaluate for sufficient discomfort to indicate end-of-life needs to happen.

I have to sit here with my middle-agedness and my debt and the fact that there are no other humans here. No significant other, no children, nobody but me, in an aging house with only fading glories.

In the dark.

With my keyboard.

— § —

If I was going to be flip and cute, I’d say something after the above like, “maybe Bobby Flay isn’t so bad after all.”

But of course that would be bringing television back into things, because that’s the sitcom answer. Yes, it’s the answer we’ve all been trained by this point to give, but we’ve been trained precisely by sitcoms to give it.

It’s the Twitter answer.

We think we’re being clever.

In fact, we’re being pitiful.

— § —

Oh, there are pitiable moments in life. Moments at which your situation is bad and anyone looking at you either makes “aww” noises designed to express sympathy or they just slink off in silence because they don’t know what to say.

But those moments happen.

That’s a fact. This is one of those for me. It’s been going on for a month now, and it shows no signs of getting better over the next few days.

Yes, I could watch stupid television programs yet more than I already have and give stupid television answers in response to my own self-critical questions, but dammit part of the reason that this feels so pitiable is that I don’t have a lot of other stuff going on these days.

And you can’t fix that by watching television.

How’s that for a sitcom answer?

— § —

Now, however, we see what happens over the next few hours—much as I hate to admit it, there is the slight chance that I move back into the television studio for an hour or two until I collapse in exhaustion (funny how television causes that).

But at least I’ll have managed to interrupt it for a moment that wasn’t work or some other pressing, “have to do it so did it” concern.

In other words, I’ll have managed to actually live, if only long enough to type one pointless blog post out.

That’s something.

Actually, it’s more than I’ve done for three days.

When you think you’re seeing from the top of the mountain—and then you spot a higher peak.  §

Perspective.

At every moment in my life when things haven’t been feeling so great, I realize that a key problem is that I’m lacking perspective—I’m standing in the wrong place, acting at the wrong scale, looking at the wrong angle.

That’s why I have a “P” forever imprinted on my arm. It’s a reminder to myself to find the right perspective.

That’s task number one.

Task number two, the very next thing, is to act based on what I see once I’ve found the right perspective.

Time to do those things again. I suppose it’s been a while.

I’m great at doing the right thing for others, less at doing the right things for my own benefit.  §

When it comes to moral decisions—decisions involving right and wrong, I usually make the right choice.

When it comes to practical decisions—decisions that involve paths that will make everyday life better vs. paths that will make everyday life worse, I usually make the wrong choice.

When the sum is more than its parts, disassembly obscures rather than reveals.  §

So it’s January 1st, 2021.

Every year since God knows when, I’ve spent weeks beforehand writing thoughts about the passing year to be published on the 31st of December.

Not this year.

The year 2020 was hard. The end of the year 2020 was hardest of all, and it’s still here, dragging on, its effects continuing.

— § —

Our second dog has been very sick this month, and likely won’t live very far into 2021. She had emergency surgery in early December to save her life, but in the process we found that she likely has advanced cancer.

She’s only four years old.

We lost our other dog not so long ago, the dog that had been with us since before the kids were born. Now it’s this one’s turn. It will be a long few months, or weeks, or days watching her decline.

The last three weeks have already been a decade long, and on this first day of the new year, their weight is massive.

— § —

Also massive is a new weight, one that’s been creeping up on me all year. I don’t know what to call it. It’s the weight that parents get as their children grow.

Some parents get it earlier, I think. I believe my ex-wife did. She used to tell me how she couldn’t cope with the empty house when the kids weren’t there.

I don’t experience it like that, exactly, but I know that I do and think irrational things when the kids aren’t here, like I don’t know what to fill the space with any longer.

It’s not about the material circumstances of life, it’s about the cognitive and emotional circumstances of life.

The kids are getting older. When they were young, they were a part of me. It was difficult to know where they ended and I began. Everything I did, I did with kids in mind, for a decade.

Now they are increasingly self-sufficient, and increasingly independent. They have their own thoughts and they can make their own sandwiches. This is right. This is proper and good.

But it leaves open the question of what I am, as apart from being a father. And the answer is that I don’t know any longer. I don’t even know what I’d like to be any longer, as apart from being a father. But life happens in stages, and this stage is wrapping up.

— § —

I’m sitting here on January 21st, 2021, at 9:00 in the morning, as just me. Kids are individuating. One dog is gone, the other dog is fading away. All of the old routines, which normally I think provide parents with some inertia—places that you go every summer, things that you do every week, and so on—disappeared in 2020.

The routine of things that you do as a family without thinking about them—that soothe the passage of time, that change glacially, that you do even though you can’t remember when or why you started—were wiped out in an instant this year.

We are starting from scratch, and in this from-scratch world, there are to be no dogs and relatively mature children that don’t need all that much from me.

I’ve been sitting here all week thinking about going back to work on the 4th after being off for weeks. I can’t imagine doing the work. I will, but at the moment, just three days prior, I simply can’t imagine it. The academic career that was my reason for existence for decades didn’t happen. I barely even noticed before, but I notice now.

Who am I?

What am I for?

What should I be doing with myself?

The world has lost millions of lives, and my own country has lost hundreds of thousands over 2020. I wonder how many selves were lost?

— § —

I tried “dating” again this year, which is not to say that I went on any dates, but I did reach out to a few people and do a few dating website things that led to a number of phone conversations.

Dating is not the answer.

These people are strangers. I don’t care about them, and I don’t want to care about them. That’s not where I am. There is no excitement. It’s not like when I was young, and I was interested and curious and perhaps a little too beset by anticipation about what might happen next.

I just don’t care right now. It’s an imposition. I found myself resenting the people I’d started interactions with. I found myself on a second or third phone call being unfairly angry at these poor women that I had to be on the phone at all, feeling as though I had better things to do, as though they were imposing on me. Even though I’d initiated.

And then I’d get off the phone and all those better things to do were nowhere to be seen.

— § —

Am I starting the year 2021 depressed?

Is this what depression feels like?

I don’t think so. I don’t feel any of those things they talk about in depression pamphlets (“no longer take pleasure in activities that you normally enjoy” and “don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better” and all of that stuff).

It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in activities that I normally enjoy. It’s that I have legitimately no idea what it is that I enjoy. The activities that I have previously enjoyed—scholarship, parenthood, wanderlust—are not available to me any longer. What ought to take their place?

It’s not that I don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better; it’s that I don’t know what better and worse are at this stage of the game and that feels a bit like being dropped in the middle of the desert with no map and no compass.

Which way to go?

Does it matter?

Surely it does! It may very well be that this direction over here leads to a city in just a mile or two, but 10 degrees off in either direction and you die of heat exhaustion within a day.

But the fact that there are better directions and worse directions reveals exactly nothing about what those might be.

You have no choice but to rotate blindly two or three times and then set off in some direction knowing that with 360 degrees on the compass, it’s more likely than not that you won’t select just the right vector for your march and will die in the desert, perhaps ironically having missed civilization by—at the start of your journey—facing just smidge too far to the right or to the left.

— § —

Dog is curled up in the bathroom next to the heater vent. I can’t tell any longer whether she feels well or feels terrible. I don’t want her to suffer, but it’s the nature of dogs not to reveal their suffering in explicit terms.

And when a dog has been through emergency major surgery leaving a 10 inch incision scar and then more than a vet visit a week for an extended period of time, wearing a cone and being somewhat groggy throughout as a matter both of recovery and of painkillers, all the habits and indications disappear.

She’s just curled up by the heater, full stop. Any deeper meaning is lost. Just like the kids, who have become more opaque, as kids do, when they get older.

I have spent my entire life as a man of the “deeper meanings.”

Now all I have is the surfaces of things. The cigar that’s just a cigar.

Some have described this state of life as being “simple” but I experience it to be anything but. It’s easy to make decisions and take actions when there are a hundred factors to weigh. You make a spreadsheet, cook up an algorithm, do the research. I’m good at that.

What to do when there’s nothing but the clothes on your body and the clock on your wall? When there are decisions to make but no particular factors to consider?

What I feel to start the year isn’t paralysis (as my ex-wife would no doubt describe it) or fear (as some of my friends would probably describe it), but rather a kind of solitary blind-deafness.

— § —

The year 2020 emptied life of so much content for so many people.

I am one of those people. Ten years ago I was a professor and researcher and author. My new daughter and first child had just been born. My wife was lovely, my dog was amazing, my favorite books lined my shelf. I lived in the greatest city in the world, knew dozens of people that I saw every day in my neighborhood, on the subway, and on campus, and I loved all of it and all of them deeply.

Now I don’t know what I do. I haven’t written recently enough to be an author. The daughter is a tween who increasingly wants to live her own life and frankly doesn’t need much from me apart from a loving word here and there, which I’m happy to give, but which leaves the vast majority of the day to me, where I sit in an office chair and look at a screen because I work from home in a digital industry that could frankly be any industry—the world would be no different. There is no wife. The dog is dead. I know my children and one or two distant friends, and that’s it. I live in an even more sprawling distant suburb of an already very sprawling western hub; the nearest human souls to me as the crow flies are those of my neighbors, whom I’ve never met (any of them, in any direction, despite having lived here for a decade now). They are dozens or hundreds of yards—rather than just a few feet—away. I don’t hear them through the walls; I’ve never heard them at all. Those favorite books sit dusty on a shelf and haven’t been opened in years. They lost their flavor once I was no longer an academic—once they were no longer relevant to my daily life and thoughts.

Anything part of my life as a New York academic—the one I built toward for most of my life—was swept away by this decade. Anything I’ve tried to build since then was largely swept away by 2020 itself. Things are startlingly close to tabula rasa.

— § —

The state of things for 2021 is “on the wrong track, choices and action needed.”

The question for 2021, more importantly, is:

What now?

The end of the year. In 2020, more ephemeral than a dream within a dream.  §

This is the time of year when, for more than twenty years, I’ve lost myself in reflection about the passage of time, the year behind, and the year ahead.

This year, I am unable to do anything but hang on, moment by moment.

— § —

Cherished memories are among the most tragic things known to mankind, more evocative of the nature of being than anything else I can think of.

— § —

The trouble with western rationalism in general is that it imagines that metaphor is metaphorical.