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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Writing, Courage, and Dissertations  §

© 2010 Aron Hsiao

It may have to be mornings after all.

— § —

No, I’m not a morning person, and I stand by the evaluation that I’ve always been more productive in the evenings and even very late at night.

But this morning, and not for the first time, as I was stumbling around trying to get coffee to drip, I was swelling with things that needed to be said, writing that needed to be done. I was composing blearily, with every footstep and every motion of an arm or a finger.

A couple of hours later, I’m deeply embroiled in domesticity. Making breakfast, dressing children, cleaning dishes, talking about furniture and bills. The mayhem is rising and will reach its daily level of ascendance soon.

And every thought I had in the early, relatively quiet darkness is gone. I can’t remember two words.

That’s a loss, one that leaves me here writing meta again, a kind of writing that seems to have overtaken my life, and not for the better.

— § —

Much of American culture today seems to me to be characterized by a distinct lack of courage. As a people, we’ve become a field of wilting grandstanders.

  • We lack the courage of our convictions
  • In many cases, we lack the courage to have them in the first place
  • We lack the courage to do what needs to be done
  • We lack the courage to associate with or even acknowledge those that disagree with us
  • We lack the courage to confront our past
  • We lack the courage to confront our future
  • We lack the courage to face our present and accept who we are

This is where the tea party comes from. This is why a 2005 Gallup poll found that only two percent of Americans consider themselves rich but 31 percent imagine that they will be rich before they die. This is why we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and why we’re still there.

Those on the right (politicians most notably amongst them) often claim to be acting courageously, accuse the left of lacking the courage to (for example) invade other countries, “defend freedom,” upset constituencies like those of the “illegal immigrants” (despite the fact that relatively recent Supreme Court rulings tell us that there is no such thing).

It’s not courage they’re showing. It’s a combination of fear, overcompensation, and the characteristic big-talking, acting-out bluster of the playground bully that terrorizes others even as he trembles inside at his inadequacy, the teachers that don’t view him favorably, and the parents whose approval he has never earned.

Courage, in the sense that I’m talking about, is quiet. It never reacts; it never pontificates; it is never pre-emptive. It responds calmly to actualities, answers difficult questions humbly—without seeking to change the universe or rewrite the fabric of reality—when times get tough.

Real courage is reluctant but stoic, staid but determined, and deeply, deeply humane, being open enough to experience and actuality to face the injustices of the universe, regret them, and accept them with profound empathy.

But perhaps most basically, real courage does what needs to be done—nothing less, and, perhaps more critically, nothing more. Courage is not about excess, nor is it the same thing as bravery. Bravery can be misguided, even foolish; courage seeks and valorizes wisdom despite the threat to complacency and easy equanimity that it often embodies.

At every level, Americans lack courage, but for a few. I think this is what I ultimately sense as being different about New York. It is a more courageous city, by far, than the one in which I live now. It is the polar opposite of Los Angeles, a place almost completely devoid of courage of any kind.

I think that is the quality that has drawn so many Americans to Barack Obama, and that causes so many others to recoil from him in horror. To embrace him, these others would have to confront not only the lack of courage that empties their lives of significance, but also all of the discomforts that his courage and wisdom force us to acknowledge and confront.

Much easier to make monsters of the budget deficit, the national debt, Muslims, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Mexico, people of color, welfare queens, those not taking “responsibility” for their lives, the tree-huggers, the abortive whores, the godless atheists, and so on, than to understand the monsters of human nature, including our own, and to struggle to subdue them, despite the implications for our own slice of the human pie and its already meager size, despite the implications for our own individual culpabilities and those of our families for the state of the world today and tomorrow.

By skillfully deploying a lack of courage, we don’t have to face the notion that our own situations and those of the least among us result from the choices of the grandparents and parents that loved us, the fellow countrymen that claimed to stand with us. By skillfully deploying a lack of courage, we don’t have to face the devastating truth that the lives of our own children and innumerable children around the globe will be determined both by forces that we cannot control (a terrifying prospect) and by the choices that we make tomorrow, that we will make today, and that we have already made and cannot take back (a prospect more terrifying and heart-rending still).

Disaster situations draw this state of affairs into relief. In the responses to natural and national disasters, it becomes startlingly easy, for a brief moment, to evaluate the differences between courageous wisdom and schoolyard flailing and bullying. The former acknowledges difficulty and responsibility, then gets quietly down to work, never complaining or politicizing. The latter casts about for someone to blame and for easy fixes rooted in platitudes that can enable us all to forget long before the job is (or, indeed, before the many jobs are) well and truly done.

— § —

I have come to terms with the fact that my initial timetable for writing my dissertation was perhaps optimistic. It was, in short, not a particularly courageous one, but rather one that sought to short-circuit the need to face the task ahead of me by proclaiming its completion almost before I’d begun.

This does not mean, however, that I lack confidence or determination now.

The last few days have shown me that I can and will do this. But it will probably take a few months, rather than a few weeks, and they will be hard months full of sacrifice and soul-searching.

So much the better. It’s time to get to work. I finally think I’m there—cognizant of and steeped in the actual work that is to be done, step by necessary step, rather than constantly throwing myself into sudden, all-encompassing, and abortive efforts in an attempt to finish in a single day or week so as not to have to muster what it takes to stay on task for months at a time.

You can’t finish it in a single “push.” And until you accept that, you can’t finish it (or indeed even properly begin) at all.

Storm Surge  §

© 2006 Aron Hsiao

Watching Sandy hit New York is a strange experience, a combination of nostalgia, worry, and relief. We used to live on the waterfront in Queens; now we live a mile high in the mountains of Utah.

I’m left thinking about the people that we used to know; people that disappeared from our lives as silently and easily as they entered. I’m sure that New York will be okay. There is a special collective dimension to that place that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. They’ll pull together.

But I hope the damage, and the suffering, are minimal.

— § —

It has been a strange, but productive day here.

After last night’s wildness and total lack of sleep, I expected today to go badly. It hasn’t. Instead, I have been intensely cogent and productive, despite being nervy and surrounded by a household of family members that are also just a bit on-edge.

But the day has a surreal edge to it. The times are all off. The routine is gone. And the week is not scheduled to be a normal one, given holiday festivities.

These, too, are strange. Last year they were still foreign territory. This year, with a two year old sophisticated enough to understand breaks in the normal order of things and to verbalize about them, Hallowe’en is on the radar.

And I don’t know that I was prepared to have Hallowe’ens in my life again; they’re like a forgotten note, scribbled to oneself decades ago as a child, that has suddenly resurfaced and changed the foundations of things.

— § —

I was also strangely productive the last time we had a day on which I was sure I would get nothing done due to lack of sleep.

It would seem that, unlike my wife, I thrive when:

  • There is no routine and/or the routine is disrupted
  • I am running on empty and/or am full of stress
  • Order cannot be maintained and/or is absent in general

Why suddenly now, with no sleep and a house full of crying kids, is everything crystal-clear to me? Why only now do I find myself typing productively like a madman?

The human psyche is unfathomable and strange indeed.

— § —

I wish the iPad battery charged more quickly.

These days I feel as though I am perpetually low on power.

— § —

Once again in life I find myself missing parts of the environment. When I lived in Southern California, I wanted nothing more than to see a season (any season) once again in my life. Life there was an endless stream of identical days. The temperature was always the same. The sky was always an open blue. There was never wind, never rain. For a year I lived the same day over and over again, ultimately feeling as though I’d go crazy if I didn’t see an overcast sky.

Now, in Utah, we’ve already had snow in October…but I find myself longing for rain. In New York we had rain often, not to mention wind. The river was a block away from us as well, so the scent of the air changed from day to day depending on the direction of the wind and the temperature of the air.

And when walking or driving with the windows town, the ambient sounds were variable. Here, traffic. A block later, the subway. A block after that, leaves and a breeze. One more block, flowing water.

It’s strange, but there is a part of me that envies the people of New York right now, who are experiencing massive wind gusts and the sounds of water ripping across rooves, windows, and pavement.

We don’t get much rain here.

— § —

At least we get snow.

— § —

I desperately want to return to the state of affairs that used to obtain in my life. In it, the subtle sound—the one that keys make on a keyboard on which someone is typing—was soothing and comfortable, a sound that I found to be reassuring when I heard it and that I missed when I didn’t.

These days, I hardly notice the sound, and (depending on the day) may not hear it at all.

There is a kind of catharsis to be had in the text and in its emergence before your eyes. Or at least there used to be.

I want to feel it again.

I need to write more.

Fried Cat  §

© 2002 Aron Hsiao

It is something of a truism that all of the best blog posts are lost before they can be posted.

For the first time in a very long time I had written a post that felt right, that felt honest, that recalled the me that used to write.

And of course as I went to save it on my Dana, a system error occurred requiring a reset, and all was lost.

— § —

Serves me right for relying on any device manufactured years ago in today’s technological reality.

Serves me right for relying on anything based on PalmOS in 2012.

Serves me right for failing to save more often.

— § —

And yet, despite all of this, I can’t help but continue to feel attached to these “older” devices. The sheer simplicity and directness with which they operate is something that has been lost to us.

I have the old Newton 2100 out on the desk again over the last few days. Nothing like it will likely come again—and it’s our loss. I’ve even toyed with the idea of trying to assemble a stash of them again (once upon a time, anticipating using one of these for as long as I possibly could, I owned three of them; later, in a fit of pragmatism, I sold two, keeping just one as a keepsake).

These days I do most of my writing of any kind on a Dana, despite the limitations and instability. And there are times—more than one of them—at which I’ve felt the urge to return to an old Nokia candy bar for phone service.

— § —

This is too speculative to go onto that “other” site, but I often feel as though there is a distinct way in which technology was more “intimate” earlier on in the life of the network society, as though we’re sliding backward—we had the game licked once, we were teetering on the brink of cyborgism, and instead we took a hard left and ended up back in the land of the consumer media device. The iPad is the new DVD player. The Newton and my first Linux machines were parts of my soul, the Palm Treo less so, and the iPhone and iPad now, despite their gloss, almost not at all.

The Unix filesystem, the Newon soups, and the sparse grey screens with only letters to adorn them—these were abstract and open spaces, unencumbered by metaphor and conventional, consumer-product objectivations. They were like the interior of the mind, like its process and potential. There was a deep synergy there.

Devices now are overloaded with metaphor—with windows and buttons and movies an notepads and so on, all of them rendered photorealistically.

It is plausible to incorporate a calm, abstract space of potential and reason into one’s consciousness; less so a highly elaborated jungle of consumer products and behaviors.

The barriers to entry of the former were much higher, but the self-articulating power of the latter much lower.

— § —

Perhaps this does belong on the other blog. Hard to say.

I remain unclear, as someone that has routinely been accused of “non-academic writing” over the years, about what makes a chunk of writing specifically and particularly “academic,” beyond the notion that it ought to be shot through with regular citations to others that have said what you are just now trying to say—first.

Fine, if they did, in fact, say it first.

But I often think that as a result we end up losing sight of the reason for citations in the first place and enmeshing ourselves instead in a game in which it is illegal to say that which has not already been explicitly said.

And we are the poorer for it.

— § —

This entry will have to be cut short. It’s not nearly as reflective or maudlin as the other one was, but that’s okay. I have to go now because our daughter has been awakened, deep in the bowels of the night, by our infernal cat, second only to our infernal dog in its ability to create frustration and difficulty in life.

The dog, however, is at least cute.

There is the slightest chance we’ll be having fried cat for breakfast tomorrow.

Beginning  §

© 2002 Aron Hsiao

Is procrastination somehow tied to place? Stupid question. Of course it is. To environment. To context.

The hardest part of getting work on any particular single project done is starting. Once you manage to start, you’re sort of locked in—you can make good progress and the hours fly by. But getting started without needing tons of “prep work” or “prep time” and without getting diverted to other projects is often difficult as hell.

— § —

Thing is, I had this licked in New York. Though I grew up in a family of procrastinators, in New York I was able to simply identify what I was working on and go most of the time. Sit down, decide, go, work until time is up.

— § —

In Utah, things are different. Once again I struggle to get going. I feel the pull of a thousand different projects and needs. Prioritization is difficult and stressful. Often things that I want to get done today don’t get done by the end of today.

There are times when I do manage to get started, on the right thing, at the right time, and then I feel relieved that work is getting done.

But it is not nearly as effortless or decisive as it was in New York.

— § —

Is it mostly the place, or is it mostly me? Or is this a stupid and artificial distinction, since as me I am always embedded in a place?

It’s true that the pace of life is slower here, and that there are a great many more houshold tasks to attend to. This is both a function of having two children (and we didn’t have any for most of our time in New York) and a function of now having an entire house and front and back yards (but no building super or groundskeeper).

— § —

And yet, despite these differences that seem as though they explain everything, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m still less efficient here than I ought to be.

Is it a matter of my not being able to adjust to the place?

Remaining distraction from the transition?

General cultural and habitual compatibility?

I don’t know.

Maybe I’ll never know.

— § —

What I do know is that I’m often frustrated here, and that on the rare day on which everything goes more or less according to work-plan, I feel as though it ought to be easily repeatable tomorrow, but as often as not, I secretly know that it probably won’t be.

Personal Manifesto of the Sinner  §

© 2004 Aron Hsiao

There are sins.

— § —

(1) I struggle to say “no” in appropriate ways. Instead, I tend to say “yes” to everything, then simply place anything I don’t actually want or have time to do at the very end of my to-do list, right after “individually polish the blades of grass in my lawn.” As a result, instead of refusals, people get what they experience as broken promises. This is particularly true when I manage a refusal the first time around but someone presses me—I almost always relent, but then fail to prioritize whatever it is I’ve relented on and agreed to do. This leads people to imagine me as inconsistent. I don’t get any points for saying, “but I tried to show that I really didn’t want to do it” or “but I said no twice before I said yes!” Not that I think I do. But I seem to act as though I do.

(2) I struggle to simply write, even though I’m essentially a writer and have always known it. At times, in fact, I can be a damned good one. But rather than simply write, simply produce what is there to be produced, I’ve spent a lifetime doing “less frivolous things” or doing my writing in a “less frivolous way”, which renders my writing rare, stilted, unintelligible, and useless. The result: not much productivity, and what exists sounds foreign to me and excessively complex to others much of the time. Too often I hear someone say, “Why is it that this thing that you wrote for purely personal reasons turns my world upside down, but what you write professionally is so incredibly average and workman-like? Why don’t you just write more like that instead?” I don’t know. I suppose I’ve been convinced that some stuff is unimportant and other stuff is what The Serious People write, and that only The Serious People ever manage to pay their bills. I need to unlearn this.

(3) I mischaracterize my skills. For decades, I’ve spent my work life emphasizing skills that just aren’t me. As a result, I’ve landed jobs and contracts in those areas. And I’ve done them and rolled them into additional CV experience that earns me more jobs of that kind. Why? Normativity. It’s a good thing to be experienced, organized, a multi-tasker, a project manager, great with people, and so on. These are social values. Nevermind that I hate doing all of them—absolutely hate. That’s what I’m supposed to be and supposed to aspire to. So I keep getting these jobs and keep rolling that experience into getting still more of the same, and featuring all of these things on my CV. That needs to change. I hate doing the same things over and over again; experience is a fucking humbug. Done it before? Then I never want to look at it again. I hate being organized, irrespective of my ability to do it. It drains me. It makes life meaningless. I hate multi-tasking. Despite years of experience and intense effort, I am coming to the realization that I am a middling manager at best because my heart isn’t in it, and I really don’t feel anything like myself while acting in that role. Great with people? I like to drink with people. I like to work alone—completely, entirely alone.

(4) I have built a forest, not a career. The result of these things is that I have spent a working lifetime building the wrong body of experience, the wrong identity for myself. My wife looks at my CV and says “howcome this person looks so accomplished and yet when you talk about your life, you sound so unsure?” The reason is simple: if I were someone at home with these things, what’s on my CV would be a solid career with solid prospects for a great future. But wearing this CV is for me like trying to wear a suit tailored for someone else that is a foot shorter, thirty pounds heavier, and some other gender from me. It doesn’t fit. It’s taken me four times more emotional and mental effort to build my CV as it would have taken someone that actually reveled in these jobs and skills. And where I can get in ten years staying on this path falls well short of where they could get. So it is that despite a great CV, rather than feeling like a person with a career I feel lost in my non-academic work life most of the time, with the deep sense that everything is temporary or ephemeral.

(5) I am not true to myself as an academic. I was once, but now I often feel rather like a trained monkey. I have internalized the “norms of academic discourse” and the “conventional wisdom” on which topics and approaches are “legitimate” as opposed to the world of others that are not, and I broach them in “the appropriate ways” and through “appropriate channels.” The result is that with every passing day I have made myself stand out less, look more like every other cookie-cutter, bog-standard Ph.D. candidate out there in the intensely competitive sea of would-be professors. It’s a cancer and a poison. I am my best when I am who I am—when I get the response that “Um, this is very unconventional and I’m more than a little uncomfortable with it because you’ve broken a whole bunch of unwritten rules, but it’s quite brilliant in spite of itself.” Unfortunately, this is usually followed by “If we can just fix a bit of this naiveté and show a little more decorum and disciplinary awareness, you’ll be a real challenger.” I have to stop listening to this last part, because when I take the advice, I lose the “quite brilliant” part, which is the only part that ultimately matters to me (and, I suspect—though few will admit it—to the academic world at large).

— § —

In short, I have sold myself short, and sold myself as something other than what I am, even to myself.

This is been a difficult year. I’d like to say that it’s been a year of growth, but in fact I don’t think I’m that far along yet. It’s been, instead, a year of discovery and self-study. The number of books I’ve read, from the popular to the academic to the spiritual, on topics from life balance to personal habits to career development, is astounding.

But they all point to the same thing.

It’s time to grow up—which for me means the opposite of what I was always told by well-meaning elders of all stripes. It’s time for me to stop listening to authority, stop trying to “bite the bullet and behave,” and stop being “responsible” instead of “frivolous.” Because frivolous can be very profitable, too (something that the intergenerational splits in the U.S. always seem to exemplify but somehow never illuminate) and responsible isn’t all that productive (or, indeed, responsible) if you’re just tremendously inefficient at it.

— § —

I’m a writer and a thinker and a teacher. Not an editor, not a manager, and not a traditional “academic.”

The differences could not be more important.