Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Goodbye 2017. I mostly hate you.  §

This post worries me because either nothing will come out or everything will come out. Either way, it won’t be pleasant or comfortable or properly cathartic as a result.

But oh well.

— § —

So. End of 2017. How did it go? Depends on how you evaluate your years.

  • If years are to be measured by the best things that happen in them, then this year was lukewarm. The things to be thankful for are the Thanksgiving-style boilerplate. Nobody died. I have a roof over my head. I managed to replace the upstairs carpet with plank flooring. We had some everyday-style good times—trips to the aquarium, nice birthday parties, etc. That’s not nothing. Yes, it’s boilerplate to say “didn’t live under a totalitarian regime, ate well, everyone stayed dry and went to school,” but it’s nothing to sneeze at. At the same time, relative to other years I’ve had, the list of “highlights” is short and the peaks are shallow. Biggest highlight is probably Molly, our now one-year-old pit bull girl, who we adopted at the end of February. She has been a terror, but also lovely. Around the same time, dear daughter won gold in the state Taekwondo championships. That’s also good. On the other hand, it’s been nine months since those highlights, and those are really the only two. Other than that, a pretty big dry spell on the “best things this year” front. So overall, lukewarm year.

© Aron Hsiao / 2017
  • If years are to be measured by the worst things that happen in them, this year has been shit. Car wrecked in March. Company got acquired, position to be end-of-lifed soon. Son had to have surgery. My older pit, who the kids love, has arrived at “these are the final months, if not weeks, of his life” status and vet expenses are now in the thousands. The first Christmas tree this year dried out and dropped all of its needles within days, despite watering. Replaced it. The second one dried out within a week or so and will have dropped all its needles soon. I’ve never lost even one prematurely before, but two? Christmas is over, so the need to have a green tree in the living room has passed, but it’s emblematic—normally when I undecorate and take the tree outside first week of January, it’s still green. This year, shelled out twice, had to redecorate, and still didn’t even make it as far as Christmas without browning. Meanwhile, nothing on the horizon to look forward to. Everything that is currently foreordained is a bringer-of-suffering. And there are no particular pokers in the fire that might pay off and lead to good things. That’s how 2017 has been. The “insult to injury” factor has been high. So overall, shit year, one of the worst ever.
  • If years are to be measured as an average of the good and the bad, well—take the two above. Whether as mean or median, the average for this year has been significantly worse than neutral. As a mean, pretty damned negative as a matter of preponderances, though shy of catastrophic. As a median, with early and fading highs offsetting many more recent lows.

As I allude to above, the hardest thing right now is knowing what’s coming in 2018, and not only not being optimistic, but in fact being full of dread.

— § —

This latter item speaks to a larger sense of malaise and the point that I occupy right now in the geography of my life.

I have not historically been someone given to dread. I have been the one that others found to be irritatingly optimistic and determined and confident. Even if things were bad now, I could eventually make them better. Nothing stays bad forever. There is always a way. I refuse to give up. &c.

I think, big picture, that this is the first period in my life during which I feel as though calls to long-suffering and to endurance are apropos. There is little else to do.

Some might say that I’ve lost both some confidence and some swashbuckle, and I don’t seem, amidst all the rising action, to be able to regain it. Some measure of my famous resilience has been lost. Okay, some large measure. Age and experience are having its way with me. Reality, too.

I have no illusions. 2017 was bad, but barring a miracle, 2018 will test my ability to cope and to survive with self and mental health intact. But time stops for no man. Certainly not for me. So 2018 here I come, whether I’d prefer to or not. (The answer, for the first time ever, is not.)

— § —

When I was in my pre-teens and teens, there was a period during which it seemed as though everybody died. Great-grandparents. Grandparents. Uncles. School friends. Non-school friends. Parents’ friends. And so on.

During the pre-teen period, this march of death also involved a lot of hospital and nursing home visits, and I became rather practiced at carrying coffins. Apparently I was the sort of kid that every family wants to have carry their loved one from church doors to a hole in the ground.

By the time my teen years hit, I was tuning it out. My instincts were clawing and tugging at me to go in some other direction—any other direction. I was young. I was supposed to be all about the beginning of life, about adventure and mountains to conquer, not about nursing homes and funerals and somber, public, formal discourses on years and persons past with eyes cast downward and hands clasped on lap.

© Aron Hsiao / 2002

I just… stopped going. To the funerals. To the visits. When my childhood dog, who was officially mine and to whom I was very attached, began to get old, I tuned him out as well. I was just not going to do “old” any longer. I took an apartment downtown while I went to university. When my parents had him put down, I didn’t comment on or think about it, or return to visit. I was not going to visit. No more death.

I went off to grad school. Other pets died while I was away. I didn’t have to worry about it. I either avoided—or did not happen to have—any person in my circle dying on me between the age of about twenty years old and now. One exception—another uncle. I did go to his viewing, though not to his funeral.

I didn’t talk to anyone. It’s not so much that I wouldn’t have known what to say as that I had said it so much as a younger person that it had taken on a kind of rote quality and I couldn’t and wouldn’t have actually felt it any longer, so it seemed like the wrong thing to do to actually say any of it.

So I just stood around in silence and played with my kids while all the funerary sociability went on around us.

— § —

I registered another domain name last week. It was in one of my highly motivated “I’m going to start a retail business because I have all of the skills and knowledge and dammit this time I’m going to make it work and become an entrepreneur” moments. These tend to last approximately one to two days at most.

Long enough to take the first steps and “launch” a project. And then… motivation and project fade.

This is a far cry from the guy that wrote seven books and got a double-B.A., and M.A., and a Ph.D. I used to pride myself on the fact that once I started something, I never gave up until I saw it through.

It’s as though with the end of marriage, the biggest “see it through” in my life has undermined that characteristic. Now I feel as though I see the fallacy of sunk costs and “realist” evidence of why I shouldn’t go through with things everywhere around me.

So yes, gung-ho for about six hours. I work myself almost up into a frenzy; I registered this domain and within an hour or two I had opened a ticket with the registrar and host to ask why, oh why, had it not propagated yet. Of course the official line is 24-72 hours, but everyone knows that on today’s Internet it usually takes within the hour when someone registers you. Where was my new DNS lookup? I was ready to get started, stat!

Now it’s about 36 hours since the registration come through. I got as far as some initial coding. And then tapered off. And now I declare a fizzle.

— § —

Preciptating factor: my eleven-year-old pit went into an Addisonian crash. This is not actually the result of Addison’s disease, but rather the opposite—a couple months ago he was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease due to a tumor on his adrenal gland. Too much cortisol, leading to a lot of symptoms of general decline.

As a result, over an expenditure of nearly $3,000, we’ve slid him into treatment with Trilostane, which inhibits the normal functioning of the adrenal glands (which is fine, because the adrenal glands aren’t functioning normally), ideally stabilizing in the correct range his hormone levels.

He’d been doing about as well as I’d expect at his age and had lost things like the cortisol-induced pot belly and stumbling, but about a week ago his appetite started to taper down. I had an expensive blood test already awaiting results from the vet, so it seemed as though there wasn’t much to do but wait. Everyone was gone for the holidays, after all. What is there to do?

But night before last, he went from “a bit lethargic” and “doesn’t want to each much” to “just plain out of it and not eating or drinking” over the course of the night. So yesterday morning I spoke with the vet first thing.

Took him in right away to do some up-to-the-moment blood testing. These results came back the same day and showed that he was in the middle of a crash; his cortisol levels had fallen too low, his adrenal glands had been too attenuated. They had me rush him back in for an intravenous drip, which he was on for four hours.

Then they sent me home. I’m instructed to try to get fluids and electrolytes into him, to adjust his Trilostane dosage significantly downward, and to let them know if any of the symptoms of the crash recurred.

So far today, he’s doing better. He’s still lethargic, but he’s not out of it; he lifts his head and looks at me when I speak to him, he willingly went on a walk, and he has eaten some amount of food and is staying reasonably hydrated.

But he is not “himself.”

Or rather, I have to admit that he is. He is old. He is dying. The latter is true of all of us, of course, but it’s the combination of the two that matters. The former makes the latter real.

This is who, and how, he is now. The cranky-but-loving, highly protective dog I’ve known for years is not coming back; this senior dog in his final dotage is my companion until he isn’t any longer. Time is moving on, and soon, so is he.

I haven’t prepared the kids properly. I don’t think. I actually don’t know how to prepare the kids properly. I don’t know how to prepare myself properly. I stopped knowing how to prepare myself properly for anything the moment I initiated the nuclear chain reaction of the summer of 2015.

Since then, I have been uprepared for everything in life. I remain that way now.

I haven’t even managed to install a CMS on the new domain, much less a cart, much less do any design work. Much less think about inventory and actually selling anything.

It’s a project aborted, for the moment. But then, life often feels like life aborted, for the moment. I am two years into metaphysical crisis and not emerging yet.

— § —

We don’t do metaphysical crises in our culture.

© Aron Hsiao / 2004

We specialize in “moving on.” We are chronically unprepared for life’s tragedies (which is part and parcel of why we imagine them to be “tragedies” at all), but it doesn’t matter in a way because we also don’t give them any ontological credit.

That is to say that—for example—when a family member dies—even a human family member that’s been around for the better part of a hundred years—we don’t have any practices for mourning or transitioning or remembering. All of that stuff is immodern; all of it is too histrionic for us. Or maybe, if we’re honest, it’s too painful for us, and one of the utopian cornerstones of all of modernity is that suffering can and should be ameliorated by any means necessary, and increasingly, we believe that we have the means.

We are the emotional Bionic Men.

So a death in the family? Professionals deal with the impending death for a decade leading up to it. We only have to deal with it when we visit once or twice a week for an hour, and even then not with the messy stuff. It’s a conceptual decline; the incontinence and catheters and plasma drips and druggings are concealed for us.

We experience the approach of death as a weekly appointment in professionally cleaned, conservatively decorated rooms in which we chit-chat idly about things that don’t matter (because to actually turn up at someone’s nursing home and say, “So you’re going to die soon, let’s talk about that since it’s what we all need to deal with” would be considered not just rude, but in fact beyond any bounds of imaginability; it’s just not done in our society, no how, not ever).

Then, when death happens, we peek at the body. “Oh, look, they’re dead, ugh, herzschmerzen, etc., a few silent tears and words of hope and let’s try to move on.” Then, we withdraw. We don’t actually have to manage the fact. The cold, physical, hard fact of death. It’s not a task for us. We just do the brief peek-and-weep. Hell, they could be sleeping for all we know. They look the same as they ever have. We don’t have to actually lift the dead weight, figure out what to do with it, nurse it along toward the grave one horizontal surface at a time, aware of things like infectious capability, decomposition, and the logistics of burial.

We call being on the phone with a professional and making another credit card payment (the same physical act that we use to buy a Diet Coke at the 7-11) dealing with “the logistics.” We don’t have a word for dragging the body around until it’s safely in the ground, then covering it all up again. We certainly don’t organize village bonfires or do communal periods of mourning or anything like that. People say things like “I buried my husband this year” when in fact what they mean is, “I think I saw him dead for about five minutes in the hospital and I cried some, in a controlled manner, and then for another half hour in the funeral home and I cried a little more, even more controlled this time; then, someone else buried him and a placed a stone with his name on it that I didn’t see made over a hole in the ground that presumably contains him, though I couldn’t conclusively prove it; I paid the bill with my American Express and then bought a lot of wine and joined a widows’ organic cooking club.”

The entire experience of death for us consists of a couple hours in the funeral home and another hour or so in a cemetery, during which we do mundane things like pay bills and eat Costco food or other mass-produced croissant sandwiches while wearing department store clothes.

Then, we move on, because naturally it’s bad to “get stuck” and fail to “move on.” At the same time, they tell us that it’s important to “grieve” but of course they do not by “grieve” mean “quit your job and change careers” or “wail and refuse to eat for weeks until you are on the brink of death yourself” or “refuse to leave the side of the body until they drag you away and then refuse to leave the grave site, rain or shine, for months” or “continue to talk about how much you miss this person for ten years to follow and talk of nothing else.”

No, by grieve, we mean “sigh a bit and tear up just enough that everyone knows our heart isn’t made of stone” and then “make bad purchasing decisions for a while and maybe lose our temper a couple of times and if really necessary, join a support group of strangers where we go over abstract ‘steps’ of grieving in more periodic one-hour formalisms and have more Costco sandwiches with them each time.”

All that death when I was a kid and I’ve still never dealt with death. I’ve never held a dead body. Oh sure, I’ve “carried a body” publicly, by which is meant I’ve carried a large, highly polished box with a handle while wearing a suit and a flower, marching along with a bunch of other people I only superficially know who are doing the same.

But let’s be honest. A body? Have I held a dead body in my arms? No. And I won’t until my older dog dies, sometime in the coming year, hopefully later than sooner. He will be the first.

And I haven’t talked about death. Not much. Not about the actual fact of it, the details of the dying, the state of being dead, the actual down-in-the-dirt-nitty-gritty. We talk about football games or the last presidential election at length. But the dead? As the dead? Not a “spirit” or a “memory” or a “presence” or a “towering figure” or “stardust” or any of that stuff, but as the actual corpse that is now there decaying that was previously alive and a familiar and beloved one of us? Ugh, that’s not nice. “OMG. OMG. Noooo!”

— § —

But this isn’t about death.

We do the same thing for every single major life event. Birth. Adolescence. Graduation. Marriage. Divorce.

We mark none of it with anything but a brief, formulaic consumer event. None of it.

When we say that we mark an occasion, what we mean is that we set aside an hour of time to be attended by an aggregate of individuals who barely know each other, speak about it as a group in euphemisms and pay something to a catering company and something to a decor or flowers company, and then go our separate ways. After that, we expect the life event to be referred to sparingly and judiciously. Maybe someone buys someone a watch—say, for graduation—or a rose. Is there an initiation? A period of transition? Any liminality whatsoever? Any ceremonial recognition by a strong-ties group? Any significant, inflective change in roles or statuses? Never.

We don’t do real, proper rites of passage in our culture, because rites of passage imply a revolutionary, irreversible, born-again change of identity in a person.

© Aron Hsiao / 2002

Our entire metaphysics is a utopian, progressive one in which human identity itself is the single stable, inviolable quality in the universe—who were you “born as?” Who is your “true self” that needs to be “expressed?”—and in which we will arrive at a world without suffering once we finally enlighten ourselves and these stable identities are universally “equal” and “honored.”

The idea of the protein, inviolable, essential self, of an identity that arrives from the heavens as-itself, can never change, and commands respect for that reason—is the transcendental basis of this utopianism, which takes the place of God as the guarantor of all hope—and it can only be protected if people are not understood to become someone wholly different at multiple points in their life. We can only mitigate against this possibility—the shattering contrary truth—by preventing people from actually undergoing life-changing and self-altering transformations.

So we’ll reduce everything to “an hour with audience and podium in honor of…” and make sure that preceding or following this hour, nothing much is out of place in everyday life. Everyone must still go to work. Everyone must still buy milk. Everyone who doesn’t needs a therapist. And we ensure that during this hour, we are amongst at least a few strangers who know little about us, encumbered by milquetoast formal norms, and that our rate and qualities of consumption as a group remain essentially unchanged—so that any tendency toward disruption in identity is smoothed out and estopped during such “rites” rather than—as has traditionally been the case throughout human history—the opposite.

If it sounds as though I’m having a bit of a crisis about all of this, it’s because I am.

I have known for years now that I have stopped believing in this metaphysics. I do not believe in the essential self that is at once a priori, immutable, created, and expressed. I believe in the biological self, which today most disclaim as irrelevant and a kind of non-self.

To have an identity—to actually become essentially human beyond the biological self—one must experience the full richness of the human life cycle, be subject to radical shifts in narrative arc and self-conception as a matter of the strange interactions between history and contingency, always with one foot in non-self biology and the other foot in minimal agency in the face of social forces.

What do you do once you realize that you and most others are biohistorical non-selves in an ideological world of self-presumed authored-yet-immutable selves? When your entire belief system is changing under the weight into—you don’t know what?

And once you begin to realize that you are not yet, in this calculation, properly human and never yet have been, and that you can’t be until you experience real joy and real suffering and real change, until you hold the bodies, and let the events turn you into someone new whom you never were before and never (after the next event) will be again… How do you go about becoming human?

The path to arrival there is verboten, prohibited, closed to us by social mores. The law and the culture implicitly says that we must be an auteured-yet-eternal self, largely a matter of comportment, consumption, and conscious essentialization day after day using the best tools available (these days, Amazon.com and Facebook). It implicitly prohibits in so many ways clinging to a combination of fundamental biology and the embraced-and-suffered flow of history as “self” (and decries any acknowledgement that concedes that the largest fact about you is your biological existence, that vast majority of your time on earth will be spent as a corpse, that no-one you love will likely ever hold, because that’s not what loved ones do in our society, and so on).

— § —

Hell of an end-of-year post, no?

2017, I hate you. Honestly, I do.

2018, I am not disposed to care much for you either. We’re already on bad terms.

Me, I don’t believe in you. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think you can accomplish things. It means that I don’t think that you exist. I think that you’re believing a lie about yourself told to you by capitalists, faithful utopians, and people afraid of endings—the lie that you exist, always have done, and always will do, as yourself.

I don’t know where the road ahead lies. I know logistically. I know that I will have to find a job. That I may not be able to work from home again. That I may become poor or unemployable—after all, I’m aging and in our culture that’s an unspoken sin for reasons that this post ought to make obvious. I know that I will hold, at some point, the dead body of my beloved dog. I know that by the end of 2018, I will not be familiar with anything in sight in my life, including myself. I know now, as awareness has finally broken through over the last couple of years, that I will be someone entirely different. A different self. And that that’s acceptable to me, even desired, as a part of being human—even if it’s socially unacceptable.

I know that I’m afraid. But also that like infantry fodder to the front lines, I’ll press on, because that’s what you do, jaw set. When I was a boy I used to wonder why all of those soldiers in the trenches didn’t just go home. Some adults still wonder that. Sometime in my late ‘30s and early ‘40s I have come to understand it.

You do not have a choice in life but to have courage and march ahead to your doom. Trying to avoid the front lines gets you nowhere, because the front lines are everywhere, and so is change, and so is death. Applying the patina of well-packaged consumer products to entire lives, as we all do, accomplishes nothing but alienating ourselves from our natures—as broken, changing, inessential creatures who love and hate, who are made of meat, who aren’t rational and can’t—not to mention won’t—ever be carried beyond this or made perfect in our lifetimes.

They died in the trenches because it was a better hill to die on (so to speak) than sitting in silence in front of a television set after years of taking but not talking about heart disease medication. They died in the trenches because there, their bodies would be held and would matter and would be given the respect that they were due—the respect of acknowledgement and concession to what is—rather than being silently handled by strangers and machinery, then silently stuck in the ground while everyone proceeds not to speak of you much, and certainly not of your death, for the rest of forever.

— § —

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

About 70 percent of all self-help literature comes down to extended exegeses on this concept.

You have to “take risks” if you want to “get anywhere.”

This isn’t entirely correct.

© Aron Hsiao / 2004

Not just any risk will do. What you must do is “risk yourself”—your identity, your essence. Understand that if you are to live during your forty or sixty or eight years, you must actually die innumerable times along the way—cease to be, become someone else entirely, come to terms with your impermanence and your inessential nature.

And in fact, it isn’t a risk. It’s an unavoidable eventuality. The lack of gain comes about when people spend all their time trying to paper over the changes, rather than actually grieving and them bearing them. Not grieving as in Costco sandwiches and sighs and paying a stranger to be your therapist. Grieving as in “never getting over it.”

People say that if you “never get over it,” you’ll never properly live again.

They have it exactly backwards. Until you can “never get over it” and accept this fact, you’re neither properly yourself (whatever that happens to be at the moment), actually alive, nor actually human.

“Getting over it,” whatever it happens to be—birth, death, marriage, graduation, hiring, firing—is a way of being a nameless part of the Amazon ecosystem. The part at the end that does the first step in the recycling (otherwise known as social-metabolic) process in which consumer goods are turned into refuse in advance of recycling.

— § —

This year:

  • Crashed beloved car, got new car
  • Hit the financial wall
  • Lost company, with job to follow in 2018
  • Son had surgery
  • Daughter became state champion board breaker
  • Kids began to conceptualize the broken state of our “family”
  • Got to spend time with both of my oldest-friends-on-the-planet
  • Got a new niece
  • Accepted that I am not the same person that I was
  • Beloved dog began the long march toward death
  • New dog, his spitting image, joined the family
  • Took approximately 55,000 photos
  • Read maybe 25 books

Next year:

  • New job, possibly new career
  • Many things come to a crisis point
  • No idea what will follow the crisis points
  • No idea who I am to be
  • Will lose my older dog
  • Will likely lose stability once again in family life
  • Will either find a new metaphiscs to hang on to or will lose mind

Happy new year.

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