Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Lower-middle class psychology, ideology, and Easter eggs.  §

I’m sitting in the kitchen. It’s sort of clean. The whole house is sort of clean, and a lot of things are sort of done. “Sort of” is rapidly becoming an everyday reality around here.

Thing is, I can’t keep up. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to keep up in the abstract—whether someone can do it—but I know that I basically can’t. It’s too much for one person. House, car, kids, career, the everydays of household and finance and utilities administration, the everydays of cleaning and tidying and maintenance.

It is quite simply impossible for everything to be “kept up.”

And so you’ve got to prioritize. You do the brake lines on the car because cracked brake lines represent a safety risk. That means that you do not do the dishes, mop the floor, or mow the lawn. You pay bills, meaning that you do not go to the aquarium or buy new shoes. You tidy the living room which means that you do not tidy the office. You file some records and do some budgeting which means that you do not get your weekend work done.

All of these things could have been decided differently, but the outcome would be the same; some stuff—all of it important, even critical—would not get done. Critical stuff not getting done seems to be what adult life is about, at least in our society.

I suspect it’s a class thing; I suspect that not everyone has this experience; I suspect that the fact that I have this experience means that I grew up lower-middle class in middle America and despite best efforts that everyone makes, I like everyone else have utterly failed to move out of that class or to grow beyond my own financial, cultural, and intellectual fundamentals into something new.

There are only two cultural strands of explanation for why this happens to people and how they end up this way—divorced, single parent, financially strained, ceiling fairly low for the long term, not getting stuff done despite prioritizing, the subterannean data of society increasingly indicating that this is just such a person.

(1) You are a victim.
(2) You are making bad decisions.

Somehow (1) feels ridiculous. This is the left position. And (2) feels inadequate when most of the decisions are about prioritization between equally critical things—not, for example, deciding to go out (as the “welfare queens” fairy tale goes) and buy a big screen TV and a BMW and drugs, then partying endlessly while letting the electricity goes off and home base turns into a squat that doubles as a crack house.

— § —

This weekend was like every other weekend recently.

Before the weekend got here, the weekend “to do list” (this is an explicit thing, it is written down—or rather, typed in) grew and grew and grew. By default, whatever I have to prioritize downward gets pushed onto the weekend to-do list. This makes it “okay” not to do it today, even if it was due today. Because I’ll get to it on the weekend, when I’ll have infinite time!

Of course, the weekend comes and I do not have infinite time. Generally speaking, one or two things on the weekend to-do list at most get done. The rest get pushed until “next weekend.”

Eventually a lot of them “age out”—they sort of unofficially become “things that will never get done” and fade. That’s not good because it means that I am not performing accountably in any number of areas in my life, and people (myself included) just don’t consciously notice it all that much (yet).

But it is no way to live. It does not feel good, or right.

I did at least do the usual one or two things, however:

(1) Some needed maintenance work on the car. There is more to be done. I am determined that my car will, this time around, be a priority in a way that it has never been in the past. Because I’m tired of owning a car that I know has many things wrong with it and expecting it to take the day off at any moment with thousand-dollar-repair-bills to follow. And I’m tired of living through those moments actually arriving and distorting the fabric of my life. If I’m going to deal with the lost time, hassles, and costs anyway, I’d rather do them on my own terms, as conscious decisions, where I can slot them in with at least some level of tactical awareness.

So far since getting this car I’ve replaced the timing belt, cam seals, coils, plugs, breather system, front wheel bearings, transmission servo cover, transmission fluid, motor oil, oil filter, cabin filter, console shifter rocker arm, fuel filter, and I forget what else. Brakes are up next.

I got the fluid flush and fill and bleed done and one (rear passenger) soft line. That took me no less than ten hours. I hate flare nuts and I hate tools and I hate the people who design these things in such a way as to be unmaintainable. But whatever. I frankly will need to re-do the soft line because the flare nut is rounded. I have a flare kit and flare nuts on the way. Three and a half more lines to go. Then flush and fill on the angle gear and the rear differential.

Point being that there’s a lot to do. And that a fraction of the first job up right now took up a huge chunk of my weekend, cost more than I wanted, and left me filthy. But I at least got some more car stuff done.

(2) I managed to tidy a bunch of the house. The house, the house, the house. It’s creeping up on me. Things are falling into disrepair, and it’s all I can do to keep it tidy. Actually not all of it, basically just the four or five rooms we live in. Standing policy is that nobody goes into any other rooms because I cannot possibly attend to them; if they get really untidy, who knows when I’ll get around to tidying and cleaning them, and having “junk rooms” is no way to live (I know this from experience growing up).

So I did get the basics done—toys cleared away at least into semi-sorted piles in their proper rooms, tools cleared away into a semi-coherent pile in the maintenance closet, dishes piled in the sink with at least what looks like care, and the hard floors swept and mopped (well—in their centers; priorities, right?) and the soft floors (what’s left of them as they decay) vacuumed (again, “center only” being a classic lower-middle class caveat).

— § —

Projects that I have raw materials for but have not yet managed to attend to:

  • Brake lines on car (remaining three)
  • Angle gear service on car
  • Differential service on car
  • New floors for upstairs (a giant pile of vinyl planking, primer, and tools sits on the kitchen floor waiting to be used, and has done for weeks now)
  • Content for side project website (paying for a domain for months now, but only have one content item up so far)
  • SAS adapter for main computer system (to upgrade backup device, not yet acquired; no point acquiring that until the adapter is installed
  • Blu-ray burner for main computer system (secondary backup, no media yet but similar caveats)
  • Toilet rebuild kits (these things are ancient and their flushing systems are borked)
  • Tons, just tons of educational projects to do with the kids, all waiting on “someday” to do them

There’s a lot of paperwork, some of it rather critical, left standing in a pile as well.

I’m doing what I can, but everything falls a little farther behind each day.

— § —

You are a victim or you are making bad decisions.
Trump is evil.
Clinton is evil.
Climate change is an emergency.
Climate change is a hoax.
NFL head injuries.
Debt ceiling deals.

A lot of words have been dedicated to what’s wrong with the American public or what’s wrong in the lives of the American public (these two sometimes blend into one another, and at other times don’t) over the past year, but I have the nagging feeling that none of them were all that useful.

I am sympathetic to the American public (hell, I’m a member of it, and I’m mad as hell, too, in a way) because I think that what’s going on is that there is clearly something wrong but they can’t quite put their finger on just what it is. I feel the same way.

I can’t help but feel that at the core of things, the problem is that we live in a highly ideological, actually quite repressive society in which everyone first of all is talking about the wrong things (because the right things can’t be talked about) and then saying the wrong things about them at that.

The right things that can’t be talked about have receded so far from consciousness and memory (because it’s better not to talk about them) that people aren’t even sure what they were any longer; they just have a sort of hole in their lives and selves where those things used to be.

Every now and then you get a glimpse of this, the fleeting sensation that you are not actually living a genuine life because of the nature of life in contemporary America. I had one earlier tonight when I was thinking about wanting to write a blog post. I have that feeling often—I want to make a lot of the things that I did today and make this blog back into what it once was two decades ago—a forum for self-expression and for recording my thoughts and activities to enable me to reutrn to them later and reflect.

But the reason that this blog isn’t what it once was is that it can’t be. It’s too risky to say what I think in any given moment here, too risky to record my actual activities. After all, words can be misconstrued. And people have vehement opinions, highly ideological positions in our society about everyday things. And if the wrong person sees the wrong thing on your blog, it can affect your future in all kinds of negative ways. Your employability. Your opportunities. Your parenting. Your legal status in various ways.

We don’t conceptualize this and when we do we decide that it’s all overblown, but the fact is that we quitely and unconsciously self-discipline so as to be able to live. Yes, self-discipline is important and right, but in the Zen monk way, not in the Foucault way. When it is done freely and for noble ends. Not when it’s done simply to be able to get along.

In this society, I think that people are receding from public life and from public consciousness as a matter of risk. Better not to know too many people. Better not to say too many things. Better to just keep your head down and hope that nobody notices you as you skate on through. Don’t do anything big and draw attention to yourself. Just do the paperwork and tend your garden and stay out of sight.

That does not describe life in the America that I grew up in many decades ago, though early hints were present. I suspect that if people could speak their minds and pursue a broader variety of ends as legitimate without potentially affecting their jobs, children, etc., there would be less polarization in America. And the news would look very different.

Everywhere, everyone is compressed like a spring, closeted, self-repressive. In the academy. At work. On the playground with the other parents. On Facebook. The correct presentation of self—correct with respect to the inevitable protester-whistleblower who will find a way to fuck up some part of your life, and likely a dear one—has become the guidingin principle in a highly public, highly transparent society. And the result is has been to put a false bottom in the box, a false back in the closet, so that when the contents are observed in all of their transparency, they have keen public rectitude, with all of the important stuff hidden out of sight.

The problem is that the important stuff, lying quietly beneath the false bottom or behind the false back—languishes and is forgotten and rarely taken out any longer. After all, you never know who may be looking.

What’s in those spaces?

Personal beliefs. Memories. Opinions. Values. Gods. Cherished wants and reams. Pleasant personal habits and preferences. Basically everything that makes a person a person, rather than a good ideologically correct automaton.

In public, everyone is busily engaged in what Harold Garfinkel called accounting practices—making sure that they can reasonably account for their behaviors and thoughts, and that they do not engage in any behaviors or have any thoughts for which they cannot satisfactorily account to the people with the power.

And, in our quest for big-J justice, we have been sure to give power to everyone. Meaning that we are now accountable (morally, legally, and economically) in public to literally everyone—including anyone that might be offended.

And “in public” is now a 24/7 proposition.

— § —

I brought out a few books—Foucault, Garfinkel, Simmel—to add a few choice quotes here, but now I’m not going to do it. I couldn’t find my Derrida—I have a quote in mind from Specters of Marx that seems to sum up the zeitgeist nicely.

But I opened them and I just can’t be bothered. Now they’ll sit in a stack on the kitchen table for days. Probably the kids will find them and draw in them or tear pages out or something.

I wonder where Specters of Marx went. Maybe I gave it away. I keep accidentally giving all of my most-loved books away. I want someone to read something in them, I think they’re so great—so I had them off enthustiastically, forgetting that this means that I won’t have them.

As a kid of the digital age entirely, I forget that in the material realm, to give-away is also to not-have, because information encoded in matter using old-fashioned methods like print does not automatically remain behind when conveyed elsewhere as does information in matter using newfangled stuff like magnetism and electricity.

There is also still a basket of colored easter eggs (not real ones—fake ones just for dyeing—emblematic of our age) stting on my kitchen table. I say “basket” but it’s a kind of disposable cardboard pseudo-basket with little yellow chicks and pastel flowers painted on the side—dollar store bric-a-brac of the “I hate living in modernity because it makes me own stuff like this that I feel bad both throwing away and keeping” variety.

That’s why it still sits on the kitchen table, eggs in it. Because if I dispense with it, then I’ve been wasteful and consumerist and am polluting the environment for all of one hour’s middling fun back in spring, and so on. Yet if I actually put it away in a closet somewhere, I’m filling my life with totally unneeded, disposable shit that has no business being kept.

So long as I keep it on the kitchen table, I don’t have to account to myself or anyone else for whatever decision I make. It’s liminal. It’s a problem that Hasn’t Been Dealt With Yet, like all the rest. Stuffed under the fake bottom of the box, hidden behind the fake back of the closet, all in plain sight in the middle of the kitchen.

— § —

TL;DR version—

I think we’ve got it wrong, all of us. Our society has it wrong.

Not as in “we made the wrong decision about it” but rather “we have entirely the wrong it, we have been led to that state like lambs to the slaughter—quite ironically by our very own selves—and we are not busy looking for the right it at all, because we know that we absolutely must not even stumble across it consciously, much less go out and hunt it down.”

There is a restoration that must take place, but I don’t think it takes place within the confines of the society that we’ve created here.

I think that a few of the pundits have basically the image already—this society has gone wrong, and will fade and fall. Another will come and will then dominate, unpolluted by what’s here.

We’re doing what the Soviet Union did. Different flavor of ice cream, but still the same basic substance.

— § —

Time to go to bed. I can’t accountably afford to spend any more time on this blog stuff.

The basket and the eggs will probably stay here on the kitchen table forever. There is more to middle class social psychology than meets the eye. It’s not all victimhood and bad decisions. It’s tactics in a already long-lost, yet still unmentionable battle.


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