Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Monthly Archives: August 2017

Walk and chew gum? Show me.  §

I keep seeing people on the left saying “we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

By this, they mean that we can tackle:

  • Climate change
  • Income and wealth inequality
  • Education
  • Racism and sexism and individual rights
  • Economic problems and the end of work
  • etc.

…and do it all at the same time. In short, the “walk and chew gum” trope is a self-important claim that comes up whenever there is debate about what to prioritize, in order to subvert and avoid the need to prioritize (or to have conversations about prioritizing) all together.

“I don’t think we should put one or the other first,” goes the inevitable bromide, “we are perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.”

Here’s the thing.

To date I have seen zero evidence of this.

Show me the money. Show me some success at this. Because from where I sit right now, all of these things are dumpster fires, and the Democratic party is out of power across the board, locally, at the state level, and at the federal level, in virtually every facet of government.

You may think that you are walking and chewing gum, or that you are capable of walking and chewing gum, America, but you frankly suck at it. As in suck.

Pro tip: Wishing something does not make it so. It is not a law of the universe or an a priori ontological fact that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. What if, surprise of surprises, you actually can’t, and that’s why you aren’t despite trying all this time?

Are you prepared to have a discussion about priorities then?

Because mother nature right now is doing a pretty good job of showing you the real stuff, as opposed to your ideological feel-goodism.

Let me say again, for the record, because in America right now this is not something that people are conceptualizing well:

Wishing something does not make it so.

Believing something does not make it true.

No matter how pure your heart.

And fuck Walt Disney for creating a generation of “adults” who actually believe this to be the case, and who are willing to fight to the death, fingers in ears, screaming “LALALALALA I CANT HEAR YOU” all the while, to avoid having to face the simple fact that the kindest, most fervent wishes of your deep, tender heart to not—ever—a material world control.

I know, so unfair.

But yeah, why don’t we keep on “walking and chewing gum” while the whole world sinks underwater. With their last breaths, some will still be working hard to “believe,” so as to make everything okay again.

Difference.  §

Every now and then it is important for the universe to remind me:

  • That I am different from everyone else.
  • That the differend separates me from them, forever.

Evening walks in the dilated eye of the storm.  §

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

A foot. A foot. A foot. A foot.

Darkness. Light. Darkness.

Here and there, little glimpses through unremarkable windows into other peoples’ happy lives. A few fruit trees. Aging and forgotten address stickers peeling away from suburban mailboxes. The smell of dog urine. The sounds of crickets and the odd passing car alternating in the night.

No idea where you’re going and only a vague memory of where you’ve been.

The smell of bread. A disembodied woman’s laugh somewhere in the distance. She sounds young, maybe twenty.

A few raindrops.

A foot. A foot. A foot. A foot.

— § —

Some people lose their minds worrying about all the terrible things that could happen next, and in doing so, they bring about the apocalypse.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017

Other people constitute their minds in brooding about all of the terrible things that have happened already, and in doing so, they render the daylight forever unto darkness.

I’m sure there is a third kind of people somewhere, but no, they are not the ones that spare no expense in signalling their enlightenment and virtue. These latter are merely pedestrian manifestations of the first two.

Yes, the Buddha lives on in books. So does everyone.

— § —

And for those who work anxiously to bring about the future with every passing moment:

There is no method nor twist of plot by which time becomes your friend. Understand that. Then remember it, always.

— § —

It’s not that hope doesn’t count for much, it’s that the smell of rain in the city, which is free, is already as close to enlightenment as man can come—but it is only ever present in solitude.

Academics, forest, trees, and politics.  §

In the beginning, I loved university because it expanded my horizons; it made them as big as the world. At the University of Utah, where I was an undergraduate, I was privileged enough to be exposed to several intense, broad survey courses whose scope covered many decades or even centuries and much of the globe—in art, in literature, in film, in geography and culture, in history.

These courses created in me for the first time the sense that the world—and my place in it—could be understood in some way, that there was sense to be made of things, that our massive, late modern melee was something more than just random noise comprising random forces that popped into and out of being like inscrutable subatomic particles.

This ultimately led me to grad school, first at Chicago, where I turned up with a naive list of things I wanted to know more about—Marxism and Marxist theory, 20th century social movements, the history of ethnic conflict, how these all related to the rise of a new, global regime of computing technology, and so on.

I struggled at bit at Chicago because in fact the courses there were not like the ones I’d had at Utah. While some of them were titled so as to suggest that they discussed such themes, in practice they didn’t discuss themes as such much at all, at least not explicitly. Rather, each one of them went in-depth with one or several cases that were, I suppose, meant to be representative or illuminative in some way. The nature of this representation or illumination, however, was often left unstated, and few claims were made about themes or about the big picture. There was not weaving of these strands into something more; instead, the approach to basket-weaving was to lay a series of four or six pieces of straw on the table, parallel to one another, inspect them meticulously under a magnifying glass, and declare them to be, obviously, a part and parcel of what “at times is called” a basket.

As I pushed repeatedly for something more and continued to try to learn what I’d wanted to learn and do what I’d wanted to do, some of the faculty there got a bit tired of me. I scored well enough on my masters thesis, but it became clear very quickly that there wouldn’t be a place for me to do a Ph.D. at Chicago. Instead, a couple of the faculty and staff suggested that I ought to go to The New School, where they did my “kind of thing,” whatever that was. (I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not quite sure to what it was, exactly, they were referring.)

The New School was a very exciting environment and I quickly found, in fact, several faculty members that were able to set me on the path, once again, to bigger forms of understanding. One of them became my dissertation chair. Another did not; he was savaged by certain other faculty behind his back for being too much and “intellectual historian” and not doing enough with “particular contemporary cases.”

It was a bit of a political struggle to finish my Ph.D. and the details are unimportant here (apropos of this post, in fact). What is important is that I finished and that as my time as a Ph.D. student wound down and now, afterward, I’ve found my interest in academics also waning. Don’t get me wrong—I still think and I still write and make notes, and my committee was incredibly supportive at the end of the day and put themselves on the line to support me. But it’s hard to get excited about professoring, or about spending time amongst the up-and-coming professoriate.

Why? As I get older and develop some distance from—as well as a retrospective perspective on—my time within the academy, it becomes clearer to me. I still want to know and understand the things that interested me as an undergraduate so many years ago. But as Camille Paglia perhaps most famously points out, the “big survey courses” and “metanarrative” are well out of fashion in the academy.

I wanted to learn in bigger and bigger swaths and circles of fact and theory and history. To see the world at a glance, not in order to obscure specificity, but in order to understand more completely how it all fits together. Instead, there was constant pressure to learn in smaller and smaller circumferences, less and less scope with more and more detail—because, after all (at least by the reckoning of much of the academy toay), there is no “big picture” version of history, of society, etc. It does not all “fit together.” Any claims to the contrary are mere metanarratives, which are always at some level petty power grabs and ideological baggage of the most coarse kind.

In today’s academy, there are only the details; a search for or belief in anything beyond that is a way of either consciously or unconsciously serving the narrow interests of one narrow group or another in some narrow way. There is no whole, there is no world, there is no history, there is no big picture to be drawn and understood and celebrated. These things are mirages.

The job, rather, is to adopt a small handful of “cases”—particular locations, identity groups, events, etc.—and to dig into them for one’s entire career until once can state rote who was missing what button on their uniform on what day in what location, and how the importance (or lack thereof) placed on this missing button at the time expresses something previously ineffable about the power dynamics not of the place, or of the time, but of that individual and the three or four individuals around them and their three or for particular identities, which cannot even be generalized to identity groups, as such generalization does violence to the particularity of it all, which is an asserted, often a priori value par excellence of the contemporary academy.

I have faded from academics because all along I wanted to study and come to conceive of the forest, of its past, of its future, and of its dynamics and properties. Today, this is seen as a generally unethical, or even immoral thing to desire. The job today, as it turns out, isn’t to study the forest, which would be to oppress its trees by failing to recognize their singularity. Rather, the job is to study the six or ten trees immediately around you in such detail that you can name, catalog, and describe at length every single branch, every pinecone, every knot, and every root in sufficient detail to enable anyone who hasn’t seen those particular trees to draw or even reconstruct them accurately from your account.

Well, that and to come to understand, accept, and internalize the notion that there is no forest, there never was a forest, and any claim that there is or ever was a forest is a matter of oppression of the trees.

At the end of the day, this is why I left academics. Because I wanted to study the forest—and after spending enough time in academics to get a Ph.D., I finally came to terms with the fact that the contemporary academy was never going to tell me anything more about it. I could not get to where I wanted to go by starting on a college campus, and in fact the Very Smart Powers That Be on college campuses would consider my quest to be a harmful one and would actively seek to subvert it so long as I pursued it there.

To learn about the forest, I’ve got to do it on my own. Somehow and sometime. When I get the time, &c.

Dread.  §

I don’t typically speak bluntly, in simple terms about my feelings, because often they are neither blunt nor simple. Certainly I don’t write about them here that way.

But right now I’m going to.

Tomorrow school begins again. One child in first grade, another in kindergarten. They’re excited about it and raring to go. But me? I am worried. Down. Troubled. Pessimistic. This is not typical for me.

My entire life I’ve always been an optimist about the future, and even more than that, fall has always been one of my favorite seasons of the year. The start of the school year has, since I can remember, been a special time of renewal and optimisim for me, them moment when I knew most powerfully that the year ahead was going to be a good one, that all would be well.

I don’t feel that this time around. I feel a creeping dread, as though I’m being stalked by a tiger in the undergrowth that I can’t see or hear, but that I know is there, ready to spring out and devour me.

I’m not sure why. I don’t know what I’m picking up on. It’s nothing in particular, nothing that I can put my finger on. But I haven’t lived on this planet for four decades to come out the other end clueless and with bad instincts. My subconscious mind is picking up on something, even if my conscious mind doesn’t know what it is.

Trouble is afoot. A storm is brewing. This season will not be easy.

If we make it to 2018 with all pieces still in place, everything more or less intact, and everyone more or less happy, I’ll be relieved.

In the meantime, I am taking deep breaths and trying to tread quietly and alertly. I do not wish to be taken by surprise; least of all when I know very well, somehow, that the tiger of some variety—though I haven’t seen it yet—is on the hunt.

Being without stockpiles of summer wine.  §

It’s the middle of the night, or rather, the earliest portion of the morning, and here I am, awake for no particular reason. It feels as though it’s not something I can control.

In fact, the entirety of my life right now is colored by that sense—the sense and experience of feeling and being helpless, of having to face whatever comes without any particular input into it or ability to affect it.

There was a time, years ago, when my parents told me that life had become to small for me. That opinion led them to endorse my departure to graduate school.

Now, it feels as though the opposite is true. I’ve been humbled; life has become too large for me. If only I could go back to those days as a young twenty-something during which little was earned but there was little to pay for, there was little to do but little of it really mattered.

I miss the freedom, which I once despised, to wake up in the morning and do nothing in particular, then to meander into the mountains with car and camera to pal around with nature for a while before returning to the city merely to stroll amongst the people and buildings until it was dark, followed by an evening watching and being tittilated by the news on CNN without ever really being impacted by it.

When I was young I felt as though nothing that I did mattered and this frustrated me; I wanted what I did to matter, and I wanted myself to matter. Now older, I feel as though what I do and who I am and become matter far too much and for too many people. I’m tired of the responsibility of mattering. I want to not matter once again.

Youth wasted on the young &c.

— § —

I head into the school year after the coming weekend keenly aware of the ways in which life with my children is changing forever as they now both begin to go off to school, and of the ways in which life is likely in coming years, in a divorced household in an economically insecure society, to become something beyond any recognition to my self today.

Nothing lasts; nothing is durable in our world today. It is all very liquid indeed.

Point being that I am overtaken already by an anticipatory kind of nostaliga and am trying to savor and to feel grateful for the years that my children and I have had together in their early childhoods, particularly this summer, this last summer of early childhood and (why do I feel this?) last summer in which the vestiges of an old life still obtained.

Yes, I have the sense that things can and will change—that the consequences of divorce did not and have not played out just yet. There were stressful times at first, but we have been in a period of calm now for some months. I am constantly beset by the intuition, growing every day, that this has been the calm before the storm. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not that I anticipate a raging thunderstorm, necessarily, but more a gentle but insistent rain that comes and stays and dwells with us until everything we have known is eventually washed away and only that which is entirely different, even if verdant and renewed, remains.

The disappearance of the old necessarily follows from and in fact is the arrival of the new, and in our dispensation every moment the new arrives in all its terrible glory.

Much of me would like nothing more at this point than for life to simply hum along as it has over the last year or so, but that is not how life works. Not in this epoch and not in this land. Reality—our reality, here and now—exists to destroy itself, to not continue to exist in the same way tomorrow. That is its one and only purpose—to negate itself. That is our most cherished cultural value—that reality should always and forever wholly negate itself, moment by moment, day by day.

The reality of the summer we have just had has been, in retrospect, sweet and whole and meaningful and intimate. Despite fractured family, we have had some semblance of normal family life, the kids and I. It is bittersweet to see school beginning again and to wonder whether there will ever be another summer like the two that we have just had.

I suspect not, but only for moments at a time, because I can’t keep it up without losing my shit.

America.  §

I suspect that the U.S. is coming apart at the seams, about 25 years earlier than I’d always imagined would happen. I am not sure that there’s a way out of this.

Most of the intellectual elite don’t understand that Trump is not the disease; he is a symptom. The U.S. has long suspected that it had cancer, but it has just been to the radiologist, who returned with the shocking news that it has stage four cancer and only a few months to live.

Trump is the scan, and no lifestyle choice can do anything to slow or reverse the process, though certain lifestyle choices could well accelerate it and reduce the time left to just a few weeks.

I am sad that my Childrens’ lives are going to be so different from my own growing up. No stable home, divorced parents, uncertain future, dying planet, and a different national identity and country, given that the U.S. is unlikely to still be here in its current configuration.

I am also fearful about what all of this means for the lives that they will lead.

Parenthood.  §

This is not a popular view. But in my estimation, any society in which a majority of the population does not engage in their own child-rearing is one that is ultimately doomed to collapse.

“Think of the children” really is a thing, and it is a thing that you cannot properly do until you have your own. No, parenthood does not change everyone, but it changes enough people in a particular enough way to fundamentally alter the frame in which a public approaches social self-sustenance.

I don’t believe that someone can be morally complete unless and until they have their own children. Now throw the tomatoes and/or tell me you’ll never speak to me again. This is not to say that childless people are necessarily somehow bad or to be looked down upon—just that there is a particular sociopolitical and historical naiveté that cannot be overcome until one is forced to engage with it on a realist basis over the very long term. It’s rather like being in a position of military leadership, or in critical areas of medical practice, with both the power and the responsibility for life and death themselves on your very tired and inadequate shoulders.

Put another way, it is not really your responsibility until it is really your responsibility, i.e. your decisions and actions alone are directly and immediately responsible for the very lives of innocent people—no escape hatch. Saying that you’re willing to take on the responsibility is not the same as actually having it, completely, without the ability to avoid it. This comes only with parenthood or—as I just pointed out—certain other rarefied positions in the social system.

Certainly parenthood is the only thing that can force this level of discomfort, introspection, and risk/responsibility acceptance for the broader population. I just don’t believe that there is anything that can take its place. A society in which parenthood is on the wane—is itself also on the wane.

The new Weimar.  §

Identity politics has come of age. Now, the Right has shown that they are able to do it, too. The stage is set, the warring factions are actualized and ready to battle, each with their own virtue-signaling pieties.

There is nothing to do now but watch the plot unfold. There is certainly no going back: the logic of the culture forbids it. Either one side or another will ultimately suffer for generations or both sides will.


For the clowns.  §

I stopped in at the local convenience store for a fountain drink to honor my culture on a Thursday evening. Standing dumbly in front of the fountain for quite a while was a guy in his twenties, staring straight ahead.

In Utah, it is bad manners to get within ten feet of anyone. It is worse manners to step between them and any apparatus or counter that they’re looking at, even if they’re well back from it. You’re expected to stand on the other side of the room, essentially, and wait until they’re done, however long it takes.

Finally, though—after maybe three or four minutes of standing like a fool, waiting—I walked to the machine myself and began to do the business.

From behind me, I heard a voice say in a dull monotone, “I can’t figure out what drink to get. There are too many drinks. There are too many. I can’t figure out which one to get.”

I turned my head to look back at him. He was young and didn’t give the impression of being anything other than of normal intelligence. But he looked genuinely bewildered.

I almost said something, but instead I said nothing, turned back toward the machine, and finished what I was doing. I went and paid and went out the door and he was still standing there.

— § —

I’ve had a packet of Trident gum in my car for some time. It’s actually a one of those built-in Ziploc product bags, resealable until you’re done using it.

It came with something like 100 pieces in it.

Today, after several weeks, I was down to the last two or three pieces, so while stopped at a light, I upended it into the palm of my hand to get the last pieces out. I suppose that was lazy of me.

A little snowstorm of tiny white flecks came pouring out of the bag, all over the car.

I almost swore out loud.

It bugged me all the way through Taekwondo and dropping the kids off to have them everywhere around me. When I finally got back home, I got out the vacuum, first thing, and sucked them all up.

My office, meanwhile, is a mess.

— § —

I am naturally a highly motivated person, in that I have often in life found it difficult if not impossible to sleep, eat, or perform basic tasks if there is something else that I want to be working on at the moment.

I’ve had this experience doing computing and tech projects, while writing books, and while studying as a graduate student.

Right now, however, I struggle to get anything done because I’m not motivated to do it.

I take this to mean that there is nothing in my life right now that interests me, and that I should find an interest.

Problem is, I cannot for the life of me come up with one. I keep reading this books hoping that they’ll tell me how to find one, but they all seeem to have been written by the same person or something.

— § —

I have a pirate VIDA/DICE setup coming from China to do proper diagnostics and upgrades on the car and it’s various modules.

I know that my interest-motivation bone still works because I know that at the moment this thing arrives, I will become embroiled in using it for hours and hours, and won’t even notice if I become hungry or the dogs run out of water or the air conditioning is off and I’m sweating like a pig. I’ll be completely engrossed.

If I have to wait for some reason to get started with it after it arrives, it’ll drive me absolutely nuts, whatever the delay is, until I finally can get started.

— § —

I only have a few friends, but they matter, and I’ve had them for a very, very long time.

I’ve tried out a lot of new friends over the years, but most of them were written out again. I secretly like writing buffoons back out of my life again. It feels like progress. I hope that doesn’t mean that I intentionally pick questionable people as new friends, just so that I can “unfriend” them in the end.

But I wouldn’t put that past any human psychology, including my own.

— § —

I have Google set up to send me alerts when a few people post new things or are posted about. Camille Paglia is one, Penelope Trunk is another, and so on.

There have been no alerts for a few days.

I am jonesing for something new to read.

I used to read DailyKos and The American Conservative a lot for interesting, reasonably well-discussed viewpoints from both sides of the cultural aisle, but both have recently gone downhill.

And things like Foreign Policy and The Economist have become less and less interesting to me as I age. It starts to seem like we basically let a bunch of overeducated, overmotivated twenty- and thirty-somethings play house with the whole planet because they are driven to do so, but nobody with any maturity is driven to stop them, being preoccupied with other things.

So they jet-set around to Davos and Brussels and Washington and Berlin a lot and get into a lot of arguments wearing shiny cufflinks and then write breathlessly about them or get a bunch of stuff written breathlessly about them by similarly young and mismotivated journalists.

But frankly—who cares. Seriously. Nuclear war? Economic collapse? Who cares. (Note statement, rather than question.)

That’s also how I feel about politics right now. I’m not supposed to feel that way, I have a Ph.D. in sociology and have always been politically engaged.

But getting older is reframing things for me. I see the problems of the world less and less in politics terms and maybe even not in public policy terms.

Metaphysics, instead, increasingly seems like the playing field in which I’m interested. Everything else is epiphenomenal, including me, despite what the Very Serious Young Global Professionals take for granted.

What is the nature of being? What is the nature of good? Of evil? What is our purpose? What is our teleological posture? These are the questions that determine everything else.

But nobody is talking about them because in modern liberal societies, it’s impolite to ask where you came from or where you’re going; instead, you’re supposed to ask where your coffee came from and where your dollars are going, and discuss yourself only (though very extensively) in light and airy Facebook memes that concern said use of coffee and dollars.

— § —

The time is out of joint.


Can not,
    can not, no—

I can’t penetrate
press beyond,
that thing, those things
just in front of me—

the automatic
floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall
off-balance haze
unwashed, unfree—

heard this one, cuz?
yeah, so go ahead then—

go ahead and stop me.

— § —

—on Saturday,
on Sunday,
on Monday,
on Tuesday,
on Wednesday,
on Thursday,
on Friday—

—and then—

—on Saturday,
on Sunday,
on Monday,
on Tuesday,
on Wednesday,
on Thursday,
on Friday—


…and, and, and—QQ and QED.

Angles and hard edges.  §

Early in the morning.

I’m laying here next to a young girl pit bull who likes to curl up against your body. I’m wearing the dissertation watch. It’s the watch I bought myself in honor of having completed my Ph.D. It’s titanium and echoes the design cues of mid-twentieth-century aviation instrument panels. It’s full of unfinished surfaces and angles and hard edges.

I like angles and hard edges in general, in most anything. I don’t generally find smooth surfaces and curves to be appealing. Most of the time I distrust them. They feel like lies, places where the angles and hard edges have been hidden from view, like suppressed arguments.

— § —

When I was living in southern California, I knew someone that basically had it made. They owned a large house, outright, in one of the most desirable beach-area districts in the United States. They had a decent income, a decent car, lots of antiques in their home. Their kids were relatively successful.

© Aron Hsiao / 2004

And they were just about as ugly and bitter as is humanly possible.

Mostly what they did with their time away from work was watch hours and hours of banal television, eat tons and tons of expensive junk food and take-out, and go to Costo every saturday on a “samples tour.”

There was literally nothing else.

When pressed, they said they’d had a hard life and now they were “living for themselves, on their own terms,” and that they were “trying to have a lifestyle.”

All these years later I still don’t know what that means. It sounds like nonsense to me, like a rationalization they couldn’t be bothered to finish developing. It’s not clear to me how this amounts to “living for oneself,” and yet this is what everyone seems to be doing. It’s the vapid American thing.

“I’m going to go out and eat and buy the things I see in the magazines and post about it a lot on Facebook while smiling and showing off great hair.”

Basically everyone I knew in my California days needed, I thought, years of therapy to be normal. Now I look around at the world and the disease seems to have spread; everyone everyone now seems to need years of therapy to be normal.

People are living hollow lives and they can’t even tell any longer; the angles and hard edges have all been smoothed away and a high-polish surface obtains instead.

— § —

But speaking of, what do I want to do with the rest of my life?

I honestly have no idea. It’s the sort of question that’s profound precisely for anyone unable to answer it.

I think part of the malaise is that in some ways I’ve done everything I set out to do:

  • Traveled
  • Wrote books
  • Got a doctorate
  • Taught students
  • Got married
  • Had kids

That was pretty much the A-list when I was young. I don’t suppose I’d spent much time thinking or planning beyond those things.

Now I need to come up with a new plan, for a much shorter time frame—a couple decades rather than an entire life. But what should be in such a plan? One thing seems to be as good (or as pointless) as another.

— § —

© Aron Hsiao / 2004

Quite suddenly, fall seems to be everywhere.

All of retail has switched over to the fall inventory. At the kids’ Taekwondo club all the talk is about fall and the school year. It got dark before 9:00 pm tonight. Most of the summer activities list has been checked off. It’s been raining.

It’s like the season plane landed and fall got off and took over.

Fall is my favorite season. It’s also the season that most inspires in me waves of nostalgia.

And of course there’s football. Football for me is on that list of things that I thought I’d rejected as a too-cool-for-school troubled teenager, but that I rediscovered later as an adult, as part and parcel of discovering myself and where I’d come from. I love American football.

American football = fall = school = family and friends and holidays = community = comfort.

— § —

But back to fast for a moment.

Fall came fast. It’s not just a matter of suddenness, it’s a matter of the weird abbreviation of spring and summer this year as well.

I know that as you get older time moves more and more quickly, but this is ridiculous. Christmas was just here. It was, like, five minutes ago. Same with the start of kindergarden. It all just went down.

How is it possible that my daughter is about to start first grade in less than two weeks?

— § —

I’ve been on vacation off and on over the last couple of weeks. Three days week before last, and now three days over the past week as well.

It’s been badly needed. In fact, more is needed from the personal mental health perspective, but that’s not how the world works. If nothing else, I don’t have more vacation days to use, or employer patience to test.

So many years of pushing. Pushing, pushing, pushing. Sometimes self-motivated, sometimes motivated by circumstances, sometimes motivated by other people that I cared about or was trying to care about.

Years and years and years without a mental pause.

This time I really actually disconnected from work (as opposed to my usual habit of taking “vacation” and then basically working through it anyway), and there was nobody pressing on me in my personal life, and there were no large projects critically needing attention.

There were some general life problems, of course, that need to be solved, but on the whole, I’ve been able to get by operating at a far lower percentage of maximum cognitive capacity than has been possible for decades.

I do feel a bit rested, finally. Along with that comes a newly insatiable hunger for more rest, adequate rest, but I suppose that’s what death is for. At least if you’re in the middle class.

— § —

Getting things done has always been a problem for me in Utah.

It wasn’t a problem in Chicago or New York, where I took initiative and made things happen on my own. I still haven’t managed to that in Utah. Everything stagnates. Procrastination reigns supreme. Why?

I’m not sure why. I’m hoping that if I keep mentioning this enough, the gears will turn inside my head when I’m not looking and I’ll come up with an answer that rings true to me.

— § —

Few things are as tragic as watching someone else regularly f*** up—their choices, their opportunities, their lives, their selves. Doubly so if they repeatedly mistake said f***ing up for achievement and post it all over social media.

This seems to be an endemic modern disease.

Counting temporal landmarks, or, life is short.  §

The last time I hiked to Timpanogos cave, I was probably eight—or maybe nine—years old. I still remember it. Back then, the trail wasn’t paved like it is now; the switchbacks were dusty and unkempt and gave the hike a more precarious feel.

In any case, today when the kids and I went to the cave, it became the second time in my life that I’ve visited. It’s also probably the last. Maybe there will be one more.

There’s no reason to talk about or frame a visit to the cave in this way; it’s an interesting natural feature and it’s cool to go, but it’s not life-altering, it’s not a triumph of any particular sort, it’s not the sort of thing you’ll still be buzzing about in a couple of days or that you’ll someday put in your memoirs. It’s not climbing everest. It’s not even at the level of getting an “A” in English class.

© M. Hsiao / 2017

And yet it hangs in the air for me tonight that I still remember the first trip so well when there’s not all that much else that I remember from being eight or nine years old. It’s not nothing that I’ve though about it over the years each time I hear someone say “Timpanogos.” More importantly, it’s a clear, distinct, and apparently memorable event that will only happen a couple of times in my life. This may have been the last, not for any particular reason other than the fact that it isn’t necessarily worth going again.

But what a strange feeling—to think to myself “that’s probably the last time in my life I’ll ever be here, sit on these rocks, walk back down this trail…”

When you’re young, you don’t think in those sorts of terms. You presume that life is infinitely long, that “everything” is still coming (and in secret, you imagine that quite literally). Life seems so very long, and the wait for mere adulthood so interminable, that obviously anything that happens today or tomorrow is likely to happen again and again an uncountable number of times before you finally manage to learn to drive, go to college, get a job, and so on. Because that is the way—it feels at that age—that reality works. Things repeat interminably and you have to wait for them; life is so very long that “no doubt” almost anything you can name isn’t really that special, just the day-in, day-out of the grind that is time.

Taking my kids today, who are not so much younger than I was the last time I went, I can’t help but suddenly feel the opposite thing—that life is somehow very short, and that there isn’t space for all that much in it before you die. Any thing that you do, any place that you go—the counter is incrementing. There are only so many more times you’ll do that—or go there.

I’ve been thinking about that as fall comes and the school year starts again, and the kids start to talk about Halloween and Christmas once again. How many more of those do I have? If I live to an above-average old age—say, 80—then I have fewer than 40 holiday seasons left in my life.

Forty is not a very big number. Not at all. What the young do not realize, when they are eight or nine years old is that 70 or 80 is also not a very big number. This is lost on youth, in all their impatience.

And if I should happen to die just a tad early, not as a true outlier, but just at the shallower end of the bell curve—say, heart attack at 65 or something like that—then I have just over twenty opportunities left to hang a star on a tree, do last-minute shopping, and so on.

But death isn’t the only way that things end; growth has the same effect. How many Halloweens left before the kids are too old for trick-or-treating, and the entire concept and practice fades from my life forever? Four? Five?

When you’re a kid, trick-or-treating is part of the universe; it is an enduring universal, a component of time, an intrinsic part of the thing that we call “a year.” There is no question about its disappearance.

But I probably have just a handful of trick-or-treat evenings left before it disappears from my life permanently; becomes nothing more than a memory.

And it’s likely that I don’t have any trips to Timpanogos cave left—it is probably already, at this point, banished to the realm of memory forever.

I wonder if the kids will remember their trip in anything like the way that I remember and relate to mine. I suppose they’ll have their own “when you think about it, time is quite limited” moments someday.

For my part, everything around me has recently taken on this sheen of the temporary and the finite. How many more games of chess will I play in my life? A few dozen at most? How many more times will I have my dad’s favorite ice cream flavor, Pralines and Caramel at Baskin Robbins, given that it isn’t my favorite and that I don’t eat ice cream all that much? Maybe one more time? Maybe twice more? How many more times will I paint the interior of a house? One? Two at most? How many more cars will I buy before I’m too old to safely drive? If I live to be eighty years old, maybe three?

Time and life are profound sorts of things. We gloss over that every day because you have to in order to be willing waste your time and your life on wage labor. But when you do take a moment to think about them, you basically lose a day to thought and reflection and contemplation.

Mothers and being.  §

Today the family is getting together on the occasion of my mom’s 70th birthday. It’s not for a few days, but with family scattered across 100 miles of highway, people collect when and where they can.

Photographer unknown. From the archives.

The gathering begins in less than three hours, but I’m still unsure about whether we’ll make it. Two young kids does not make for easy travel, particularly if they’ve already had a long, boring car experience earlier in the day and now the trip would mean another.

But in honor of my mom’s 70th, I thought I’d take a few moments to thank her for some of the legwork that she put in over the years—there was a lot of it.

  • “Surplus.” Anyone else reading this will have no idea what the term means, but for my mom, I am positive, the term “surplus” brings to the fore a whole catalog of places, faces, and purchases. “Surplus” was a term in the names of an array of otherwise unrelated places—mostly government agencies and departments of large nonprofits—to which I used to beg and plead for her to take me, so that I could buy computer equipment. Or rather, so that I could beg and plead for her to buy me mostly used up, often highly archaic computer equipment. This went on for years. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of trips. Each time with no particular aim in mind—I just wanted to go, to see if there was something interesting (to ask for her) to buy. Often there wasn’t. The wasted trips must have numbered in the hundreds as well, often involving cross-valley, in-traffic driving. In retrospect, I can’t believe that she never once, in all those trips, lost her cool and drew the hard line: “No more surplus. No places with surplus in their names. Not now. Not ever. Never again! Ever!” I certainly would have. But she never did.
         Now that I’m a parent, I can also begin to understand that she probably had mixed feelings about it all—a strange cocktail of pride (“My kid may be an ubergeek, that’s kind of cool, I want to support this!”) and fear (“How much is this going to cost me, how many pounds is it going to weigh, how much like junkyard refuse is it going to look, is it electrically and chemically safe, and how will I even tell? Does he know what he’s doing?”) In fact, often I didn’t. But she put in hundreds of hours helping me to excavate the world of “surplus,” without which I wouldn’t have had the educational life, or the career life, I’ve been able to have.
  • Keeping me righted that time I totally lost it on the stairs. (For, like, a decade.) At some point during fourth grade, having a very rough time of things at school (an understatement if ever there was one), I came home and threw what can only be called the mother of all big-kid tantrums. I yelled. I screamed. I punched walls. I complained and insulted and criticized and manipulated and make big claims like “I’m never going back to that school again.” Funny thing—I basically didn’t. Rather than lay down the wood and tell me to shut up, go do my homework, and count my stars that I wasn’t grounded forever, she listened. She asked questions, in response to which I mostly yelled. And then she got together with my dad and made sure that I was re-routed soon afterward to a different school. Again, as a parent now, just thinking of that particular logistical task gives me hives. But mom wasn’t just receptive and understanding—she had follow-through.
         School wasn’t ever quite smooth again as a result of my experience early on and for years afterward I’d need help to remain “compatible” with the education system, but I ended up in a far better place, and on multiple occasions as I—let’s say—failed to make the most of alternative education opportunities that she was instrumental in tracking down for me, she’d continue to run interference between me and “the system” to ensure that I didn’t become a statistic. She supported me in doing work my way, then invariably helped me to brainstorm about where that work might be valued and how it could be presented. Often, she ran ahead, making the phone calls and doing the visits with The Important People to ensure that my self-directed path remained a viable one. That path that she helped to clear carried me all the way to Ph.D. in the end.
  • The endless consultations. Some people don’t have many answers. Some people have tons of answers. Both are fine, as far as they go, but it’s far more rare to meet people with tons of interesting questions. Mom has always been one of my top resources in times of confusion, largely because she doesn’t try to cut through it. Instead, she listens—then asks. However arcane the topic, mom has always put in the time to listen patiently as you try to bring her up to speed, so that in the end you can conclude by telling her just how stuck and bewildered you are. And then, rather than try to give advice, she asks questions. She doesn’t run out of questions. When I was younger, I sometimes became infuriated at her refusal to provide pat answers or opinions on things. Sometimes I wanted validation for what I already had concluded; sometimes I hadn’t managed to conclude anything yet and wanted her to do the hard work for me—to take the responsibility off of my hands. But mom has never faltered in refusing to provide answers, whether easy or hard. Instead—questions. One after another.
         I can’t possibly imagine how many hours of patient listening she’s given me, or how many thousands of questions she’s generously donated, but over the years I’ve come to realize that having someone with an endless reservoir of relevant questions to ask is one of the greatest assets a person can have in their life. There is still no one else that I know who can ask questions like mom does—whether about Ph.D. dissertation topics or about weekend play plans. And no matter how long-winded or strident your answers become, no matter how many times you’ve already called out of the blue for a two-hour conversation this week, she doesn’t lose her nerve or her mind—she listens carefully, somehow puts a few more interesting thoughts together—and then asks more follow-up questions. Without mom’s questions, I can’t imagine where I’d be.
  • Cooking with us. Especially pizza. While talking about pizza. From a very early age, I remember cooking with mom. I have to confess to having teased my mom a bit about cooking over the years, as her cooking habits have never been those of the average foodie. When I was young, they were middle-America chic (hot dog chunks in macaroni and cheese, the latest casserole recipe from Better Homes and Gardens) and as we all got older, they shifted toward middle-Whole Foods chic (quinoa, kale, and grapeseed mayonnaise a-go-go). But the fact is that I remember hours and hours of cooking time with mom as a kid, and I loved them—and I remember loving the food that we cooked as well. This is particularly true for pizza, which we used to make in a beaten-up tin cake pan with a green painted exterior using frozen bread dough rolls for crust, tomato sauce from a can (with a dash of oregano from a shaker) as sauce, hamburger, and cheddar cheese. We’d do this while she told the story (oft-repeated, as my siblings can no doubt confirm) of her first encounter with pizza as a young person in middle America, and thinking that it was “so, so good.” And as we ate the pizza that we made (of a sort that would give any pizzeria guy in Manhattan fits), I remember thinking that our pizza, too, was “so, so good.”
         These days I’m a pretty good cook, but I never use a recipe. I’m pretty sure this is thanks to hours of alchemical food work with my mom, not in the tiny, often pointless territory of haute cuisine but rather in the high, culinary-scientific weeds of “what’s in the fridge, how will it behave when we combine it all together, and what processes can we apply to influence this behavior for our own ends?”
  • Helping us to understand and apply key bits of Heidegger. I’m sure this reference will mystify her. She’s not necessarily a continental philosophy buff, especially 20th century continental philosophy. But “we attain to dwelling,” good old Martin argues in Building Dwelling Thinking, “only by means of building,” and “the latter, building, has the former, dwelling, as its goal.” Heidegger relates both to “the basic character of being” that mortals experience, and to the question of what it means to have and to be at home in the world. All of this is really a complicated way of saying that mom has always intuitively understood—and intuitively fostered in us—that sense that being (being alive, being content, being productive, being a complete person) is something that can’t be contracted out, and that must never be episodic. You can’t live in and through what someone else built, and you can’t dwell while you’re not also building.
         Whether as a matter of planting trees and laying sod, of insulating and flooring, of encumbering our rooms with decorative regimes in keeping with strange teenage whims, of building—haltingly—identities and preferences and personas, often in eyebrow-raising ways, mom tolerated, encouraged, often paid for, and patiently supported so very much building. She thus fostered—I think without consciously realizing it—dwelling and being of a sort that many people struggle to find and understand today (this lack being, I’d argue, a fundamental disease in our society right now). There are a lot of messed up, miserable people out there, people who are never at home and never will be at home because they don’t know how to be. We—my mom’s children—are not those people because for all of the time I can remember as a child, the building was ongoing, never quite “just begun” and never quite “finished,” but rather a fundamental process of life, and it was always ours to do, as the people who lived with it, not to be contracted out or bought “off the shelf.” Mom invested year after year in demonstrations of this ethic—and we all internalized it.
         Yes, mom, all those planted trees, painted walls, laid floors, and extended appliance-comparison-shopping-and-installation periods, none of which ever quite seemed to be “done forever,” were a useful thing. It was not about how well they turned out in the end, but the fact of doing them. They were an intuitive philosophy lesson that sticks with me to this day. You taught us how to dwell, and thus how to be, at home.

I’m fairly sure none of this is what my mom expects me to remember most about our relationship over the years, but these are in fact the things that continue to influence me each and every day. They’re not memories; they’re practicalities and practical realities upon which I rely. They matter, and for that, I thank her.

There are, of course, memories too:

  • Mom reading the rhyme “I’m Hiding” to me over and over again from those big books whose covers I never recognized until she actually began to read.
  • Little trips—so many little trips—to stores, to museums, to libraries, and to visit friends and people in need of help and company; I can still remember so many of their names, faces, homes, and yards, though I won’t go over them in public for obvious reasons.
  • Extracurriculars, the trips to and from them, and mom’s belief that they’d be good for me—soccer, karate, track, electricity, creative writing, piano, computer club—even when I wasn’t sure (they were).
  • Mom’s good humor at invariably failed attempts—on holidays, on weekends, over and over again—to get us all together to play a game, sing a song, do a project, or anything else one might wish a herd of cats to do—and her amiable smile and half-hearted protesting when we refused and made light of the very suggestion, every time.
  • All the wild goose chases for particular kinds of clothes, shoes, food, toys, and other kid stuff.
  • Seeing mom’s foot, always in the same sensible nursing shoes, on the gas pedals of a parade of vehicles over the years in hours and hours and hours of driving.
  • So many moments of unowed enthusiasm for things that her kids decided to pick up along the way, some of it very arcane indeed, whether (in my case) I was trying to explain to her the fundamentals of the Von Neumann architecture (and she appeard to be enrapt) or how heavy metal, thrash metal, and speed metal differed (she did in fact hold up her end of the conversation rather better than anyone could justifiably expect).
  • Lots and lots of family history stories. (Like… lots of them.)
  • Lots and lots of moments of self-deprecation, at which she would say to unsuspecting opponents, “I don’t know, I’m just a mom…” and later on “I’m just a little old lady, what do I know…” before proceeding to get Big Things Done in the most unassuming way possible.
  • And, going back very, very far indeed, being rocked to sleep in the old, old massive rocking chair whose arms made a sound like the clang of a grandfather clock when you hit them, with mom singing quietly and the world fading slowly out. That is, of course, a long, long time ago now.

Happy birthday, mom. You have always been a real mom—not hunting for superficial “perfections” and temporary plateaus, but rather teaching how to live, how caring works in the real world, and how to get things done when all hope is lost and it seems completely impossible to do so.

We love you.

Tough questions (or the lack thereof).  §

If I could afford therapy or life coaching or something like that right now, I would totally be doing it, seriously, and all the time.

Not because there’s anything in particular that’s wrong or painful or anything of the sort, but because I have the vague sense that I am underperforming, that my choices and strategies are suboptimal right now, and that my level of self-awareness is not what I’d like it to be or what I feel like it used to be a decade or two ago.

What I really need is someone to challenge me, to ask me tough questions. I used to have graduate advisors to do that for the longest time, sort of half-mentor, half-friend, have-superior (yes, I realize that is three halves) and then after than when we moved to Utah I still at least had ex-wife, although that wasn’t always helpful, as things tended to veer pretty quickly from tough questions (good) to serial accusations (not actually so useful or illuminating). But even so, there was still something there to challenge my self-understandings and draw attention to things that I might not otherwise see or understand about myself.

Right now and for more than a year, there is nobody challenging me. There are no tough questions. There are no surprise interrogatives or moments of shock where I am suddenly silent because someone has pointed out something important and insightful about me that I didn’t previously see about myself—no moments of silence in which I find myself struggling to answer something that is, at the end of things, and very good and fair question.

I need those moments. Everybody needs those moments, or they get stale, and stale is what I’ve become.

The question, then, is how do I find someone to regularly challenge me—someone who knows me well enough for the challenges to be interesting and revealing and impossible to simply dismiss. There’s nobody right now who both knows me well enough to that and who is mature, accomplished, and different enough to light up parts of life territory that I can’t already see on my own but that they can.

This is thing number one that’s missing from my life right now, and what I really need in a “mentor.” I need to be questioned—not at random or petulantly or superficially, but in that way that makes me swell with respect and gratutude a moment before I then say either silently inside myself or even out loud, “Okay, that’s the respect bit, and much respect, and now let’s get down to work on this problem, which I’m grateful to have discovered with your help and to be able to confront.”

I think this is the sort of thing that therapists do as well, only you have to pay them for it, they don’t come cheap (totally implausible right now), and the level of accessibility is less useful than the level of accessibility that you have with someone who’s a personal connection and you can bounce ideas off of more or less at will.

Boy do I miss that interaction—I bounce an idea, they ask a tough question or point out an assumption on a totally different scale or in a totally different geography from the one I was working in, and suddenly I am thrown totally off balance and have to come to grips with additional complexity or nuance in ways that will make life a hundred times better down the road.

Note to others who may be reading: If you have this, you should consider yourself to be damned lucky, and you should nuture it and use it and never take it for granted.