Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Even if you abandon your father to wash curtains you won’t run out of things that need to be done.  §

There are so many things that you think over the course of the day, little thoughts as you go about your business, that cause you to say, “Ah, that should be in my next blog post!” And you craft sentences to come before them and sentences to come after them, and then paragraphs to come before them, and then paragraphs to come after them, and you envisage perhaps even an entire series of related blog posts on what is rapidly becoming a sprawling, interconnected set of topics, and you begin to feel quite satisfied with yourself and your plan.

And then the end of the day arrives and you’re actually sitting in front of keyboard and monitor and you have no recollection of what, exactly, any of those thoughts were, because sometime around the time you were doing dishes, or perhaps washing the shower curtains, or perhaps climbing about on the roof to replace the cooler pads, you became entirely preoccupied with the task at hand—and that was that.

Oh well.

— § —

Once you get into the “I’m doing things that need to be done” flow, the only way to exit the flow is a conscious exit. That is to say, you have to do what is ultimately a vaguely unsatisfying thing: say to yourself, “I’m not done, but I’m stopping anyway.”

This is of course because the list of “things that need to be done” can not, ever, for any reason, be exhausted. And once you are in the flow and making steady progress, there is a momentum that carries you forward, and if you don’t consciously stop, you can go on straightening pictures and cleaning toilet handles and sewing torn clothes and washing windows until you’ve not slept for weeks and drop dead despite yourself.

— § —

I have never hung any of my degrees. I have two bachelors degrees, a masters degree, a doctorate degree, and an endowed award from my discipline. In a way it feels strange that I’ve never hung them, and I do have, in the new office, space on the wall where they could conceivably go. I mean, I did earn them and they represent many years of my life and a significant dimension of how I got to be who I am.

On the other hand, it seems strange to hang them given that I’m no longer in the field, am no longer a classroom professor, do not research, do not publish, have in fact not seriously thought about any of these topics in more than half a decade.

— § —

How do I feel about that?

I still don’t know. I don’t have the existential pain that some have when they leave the academy. The fact is that I was not all that happy with what academic life was turning into in my case. There are a number of digressions that I could make here, but suffice it to say that I didn’t like where academics seemed to be going, I didn’t like where my discipline seemed to be going, I didn’t want to make the sacrifices that would lead a broken culture to take me “seriously” as a candidate for bigger and better things, I was losing the appetite to live in poverty and destroy parts of my life in order to publish, and—of course—at the time that I left I found myself going through a messy divorce and custody battle.

So academic life wasn’t really on the cards.

But how do I feel about it now?

Fact is, I only came to work in upper management in business by accident. I was, in fact, headhunted, and when presented with an exit ramp given all of the circumstances outlined above, I took it.

— § —

I am, however, troubled by the fact that there are things that I can do and things that I can think that will never be of benefit to anyone—by the fact that I’ll do a pretty vanilla job in a pretty vanilla industry probably for the rest of my life. That’s not to say that things would have been any better in academics—they wouldn’t have. Not as it is currently constituted. It’s broken, thoroughly broken, like so much of the rest of our society.

I suppose I find myself thinking that it’s a shame that there isn’t some other academic constellation or universe out there (“academic” probably being the wrong word here) where I might do some good. At the same time, I long ago lost my youthful sense of initiative. All those thoughts that I had a decade ago about perhaps getting together with a handful of other endoctorated radicals to start some “new” sort of organization that was the Humboldtian university without actually being the Humboldtian university, well… those thoughts now just tire me out.

I recall once again (and each time with greater amazement than the last time I recalled this) that my dissertation chair once told me that at his advanced age, he still wasn’t “tired” at all, that he still had “a lot of energy.”

I’m half his age and I’m exhausted. I don’t have energy.

Note that I’m not referring to physical energy here. I do taekwondo. I can hike for miles without stopping and have by now remodeled god knows how many rooms in my house singlehandedly, alone, late at night.

What I don’t have is mental and spiritual energy.

I am lacking a cause and my conversion story to it. Once that cause was knowledge. Then I learned that I was being fooled about the nature of knowledge in contemporary society, and I still haven’t recovered.

— § —

At times, when I’m busy puttering around the house “doing things that need to be done” I wonder what it would be like to be a teacher of students again. There are times when I think, “Oh, I could dip my toes back into that. I could teach as an adjunct, now in even more places than I did in the past, given the amount of new knowledge and experience I’ve gained in the private sector and the things I’ve learned about how my discipline relates to and interacts with others.” But then I think better of it.

I don’t think there’s any way to make the world a better place by teaching right now, at least not institutionally. The institutions are morally bankrupt, across the board. They are machines for the corruption of students and the destruction of society, little more, and probably even less.

At times I also think that I ought to reach out to my department chair.

I am possessed now of that disease that one catches when too much time has passed between the last time you spoke to someone that has been important in your life and the present moment. Rather like the fathers who abandon their children—only in this case, it’s the opposite. As an academic “child,” I have abandoned my academic “father.”

I go over entire speeches in my head, ways I’d try to explain the lack of contact and my abandoning the discipline without telling him.

It wasn’t just the divorce, I’d explain. I’d become disillusioned with the whole thing—with the ideological forces at work, the quality of the students, the quality of the research. I’d come to feel that the academy was doing more harm than good. I left to get my bearings. I’d explain how the impact of his suspicious posture toward postmodernism and “luminaries” like Foucault had grown ever more important in my life, how I understood more and more with each passing day how right he’d been. How sorry I was to have spent so much time arguing otherwise, how much more I wish I’d listened early on to what he was trying to tell me.

I’d explain how all of this meant that I needed to go away and think, to get away from the academic life I’d been embroiled in since I was fifteen years old, and how I still am not entirely sure that I feel settled about all of it.

I’d also express my thanks for everything that he did for me, and apologize for not making more of that investment.

But I never actually write or call. Because I don’t know to what end I open that relationship again. Where does it go? Nowhere. I’m living a non-academic life and there are a lot of things that need to be done.

— § —

My direct supervisor at work, who happens to be the person that runs the company, keeps telling me that I need to take time off. He’s right.

The problem is that there’s never a good time to take time off; whenever I take time off, double the work will confront me when I return. But yes, I need to take time off. There are many things that need to be done outside of work, things that are languishing, that are forgotten, that are urgent but also very, very late.

Moving to this new office has been one of those things.

But there are any number of ways in which I’m living in a kind of stasis. Not in terms of my age, which continues to advance apace, but in terms of the configuration of my life and values.

Problem is, I don’t need something like a week off. I need a sabbatical. I need five years away at a monastery to read and reflect and tend a little patch of flowers.

That, however, really isn’t on the cards. There are two kids that require a father to live a reasonable life (bet you’ve heard that is never the case and, in fact, isn’t even really possible, but it’s true) and there are of course too many things that need to be done.

So I’ll just postpone the “read” part to sometime (hopefully) before I’m dead, and I’ll do the “reflect” part as I do dishes, wash shower curtains, climb about on the roof to replace the cooler pads, and so on, writing long, insightful blog posts in my head full of startling yet inevitable parallels that illuminate things about my life and the moment in which we all find ourselves—and then I’ll lose sight of them again, not publish them, and write posts like this one instead.