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Monthly Archives: January 2021

Knit caps may be the only things that don’t age, though they do ultimately always get lost.  §

When I was younger, I loved old things. Not too old, mind—not antiques. Just things old enough to show wear.

In fact, so long as they showed sufficient wear, so long as they were ratty and scratched enough, even a little bit of age did the job. They needed to look, in other words, aged.

That’s the particular insecurity of the young.

Every young person vies with every other young person for authority, for importance and the deference of others. Deference is given to those who are worldly wise—who have seen some things. Those who know.

There is no better way to demonstrate this particular quality when you’re young but to wear and be surrounded by things that demonstrate just how much battle you have seen, how many times you’ve been around the world on barely-maintained trains in forgotten countrysides where once there was this war or that one, and so on.

Never mind that as a teen or young twenty-something, it’s all likely a pose.

It’s instinctive. You want to be one of the silverbacks.

— § —

Now that I’m racing down the other side of the hill, my relationship to old things—particularly to my old things—is far more complicated.

Now things are old just because they’ve been around long enough to see decay. Now they are reminders that I, too, have seen decay.

That’s a hard pill to swallow at times.

And yet at the same time, things that have grown old are also things that are familiar, that are part of you, that are domestic and comfortable.

There’s a very strange feeling that I don’t have a word for when I look around now and see, for example, that paint job that I did that was once so fresh and white and new and is now ratty and scratched and shows all the signs of having been lived-with.

To see the light fixture that I installed, now with a dent and covered in dust, or the car that was once a bundle of shiny surfaces and clean, straight edges now a matter of fading paint and bumps and irregularities.

They’re the things of my life; they hold memories of myself and my children, I liked them (even loved them in some cases) and continue to do so.

And—

They’re things in the throes of death, they are evidence that those beloved versions of self and children have also passed long away, never to return, and part of me itches to replace them, even as another part of me silently cries out with some sort of pathetic longing for something closer to immortality.

— § —

But it is what it is.

— § —

I’m in the middle of painting and flooring another room.

If there’s one constant since my divorce, it’s that I’m in the middle of painting and flooring a room. I think that’s what happens when you divorce; something in you snaps and begins to crave the smell of volatile organic compounds and after that you compulsively fill your existence with them, painting and flooring like a madman without even realizing it.

— § —

I’m also in the middle of living my last… month? quarter? year? weekend?

…with my dog. She continues to do “okay but not great” as has been the state of things for at least three weeks now. It’s now been five weeks since the emergency surgery that saved her life but also revealed the presence of a large tumor—since removed, but believed by the doctor to likely be malignant.

It continues to be unclear what works and what doesn’t.

It continues to be clear that sometimes she feels well and happy and sometimes she doesn’t.

— § —

Here’s how my life works.

Every time I’ve gone outside since the first chill of fall, I pause at the door and think, “I should put on that knit cap I have.”

Then, I look around the entry area for it, can’t find it, and at some point think, “Oh, right. I think it’s in the car. I’ll put it on when I get in.”

Between the door and the car, I forget entirely, and when I get into the car and sit down, I don’t put it on.

I couldn’t if I tried, because in fact every time I return to my office, sit down, and start to use this keyboard, I spot said knit cap sitting next to my keyboard and think, “why in the world is that in here…I need to take it back to the entryway when I head that direction.”

The next time I head that direction, of course, I don’t even remember that I’ve had the thought.

So here the knit cap has been, beside my keyboard since October as I type.

And my head has been uncovered the entire time when outside.

That’s how my life works.

Building and unraveling are the two things that happen in life.  §

There are two phases in life, the building phase and the unraveling phase.

These alternate.

For a time, with no particular emergencies or contingencies to force your hand, you build. Always you think you are “finally making progress.”

You aren’t, because such a phase is inevitably followed by an unraveling phase. Something unexpected happens. Usually, actually, multiple unexpecteds happen, because the first unexpected diverts your attention from other things you ought to be doing, and soon as a result multiple unexpected things are happening. This is an unraveling phase, during which any progress you’ve made during a building phase is torn down.

Your “finally making progress” gives way to “giving up all the ground you thought you’d gained” as you try to address the crises that seem suddenly to be everywhere.

— § —

We’ve been in an unraveling phase for some time now. Well, actually we’ve been in a large-scale unraveling phase for six years here, but there have been smaller alternations between building and unraveling happening throughout.

Starting in December, a small building phase I’d managed to keep going despite everything throughout 2020 gave way. The dam finally burst, and suddenly everything, everywhere was unraveling. It’s torn me back down to essentially zero. Zero after climbing for more than a year and thinking that maybe—just maybe—I was finally about to emerge into daylight.

It’s been hard. Very hard.

But today at least, I have two working bathrooms again. The clog in the drain behind the wall has been snaked out with a new plumbing snake and both bathrooms have been cleaned, top to bottom, and are working properly.

That’s a start, dammit.

It had better be a start toward starting to build again.

When you’re in the thick of death, try to find God, not television.  §

I’m not normally a television viewer. Not for years.

One reason for this is the uncomfortable feeling that I am perhaps too drawn to it in certain ways. Not to every program, not to just “what’s on” by any stretch of the imagination.

No, something darker than that.

Every now and then I stumble across a program—or, when things are bad, I seek out a program—where the characters and the environs feel comfortable to me. Not like home, necessarily, but—say—more comfortable than my real environs and supporting characters at the moment.

And that’s when I try to move in.

I’m blogging tonight to stop, or at least, to interrupt just such a moment.

— § —

My companion animals—my pets—are dying left and right. Not from neglect, but from things like cancer that can happen regardless of the choices that you make in life.

The kids aren’t here.

I’ve had to go back to work after an extended break.

Things aren’t comfortable, to say the least. So I find one mindless show or another and watch an episode. And then, before you know it, I’ve watched dozens of episodes, and I’m watching them in multiples every night.

Basically, I find myself trying to move out of reality and move in to the screen, because it seems like a better place to be. Better environs, better supporting characters, different and perhaps more pliable problems.

— § —

This is not a good strategy. It’s not even good entertainment.

Do you want to know how many episodes of “Beat Bobby Flay” I’ve watched this week? It’s got to be 50 already, in the space of three days.

That has to stop, because there’s no excuse for it. It’s so bad I need to post about it here to really embarrass myself in hopes of putting an end to it.

— § —

Of course that means that I have to sit here in silence in this room, pecking things out on this keyboard and waiting for work to arrive in the morning, accompanied by a sick and likely terminal dog that I constantly evaluate for sufficient discomfort to indicate end-of-life needs to happen.

I have to sit here with my middle-agedness and my debt and the fact that there are no other humans here. No significant other, no children, nobody but me, in an aging house with only fading glories.

In the dark.

With my keyboard.

— § —

If I was going to be flip and cute, I’d say something after the above like, “maybe Bobby Flay isn’t so bad after all.”

But of course that would be bringing television back into things, because that’s the sitcom answer. Yes, it’s the answer we’ve all been trained by this point to give, but we’ve been trained precisely by sitcoms to give it.

It’s the Twitter answer.

We think we’re being clever.

In fact, we’re being pitiful.

— § —

Oh, there are pitiable moments in life. Moments at which your situation is bad and anyone looking at you either makes “aww” noises designed to express sympathy or they just slink off in silence because they don’t know what to say.

But those moments happen.

That’s a fact. This is one of those for me. It’s been going on for a month now, and it shows no signs of getting better over the next few days.

Yes, I could watch stupid television programs yet more than I already have and give stupid television answers in response to my own self-critical questions, but dammit part of the reason that this feels so pitiable is that I don’t have a lot of other stuff going on these days.

And you can’t fix that by watching television.

How’s that for a sitcom answer?

— § —

Now, however, we see what happens over the next few hours—much as I hate to admit it, there is the slight chance that I move back into the television studio for an hour or two until I collapse in exhaustion (funny how television causes that).

But at least I’ll have managed to interrupt it for a moment that wasn’t work or some other pressing, “have to do it so did it” concern.

In other words, I’ll have managed to actually live, if only long enough to type one pointless blog post out.

That’s something.

Actually, it’s more than I’ve done for three days.

When you think you’re seeing from the top of the mountain—and then you spot a higher peak.  §

Perspective.

At every moment in my life when things haven’t been feeling so great, I realize that a key problem is that I’m lacking perspective—I’m standing in the wrong place, acting at the wrong scale, looking at the wrong angle.

That’s why I have a “P” forever imprinted on my arm. It’s a reminder to myself to find the right perspective.

That’s task number one.

Task number two, the very next thing, is to act based on what I see once I’ve found the right perspective.

Time to do those things again. I suppose it’s been a while.

I’m great at doing the right thing for others, less at doing the right things for my own benefit.  §

When it comes to moral decisions—decisions involving right and wrong, I usually make the right choice.

When it comes to practical decisions—decisions that involve paths that will make everyday life better vs. paths that will make everyday life worse, I usually make the wrong choice.

When the sum is more than its parts, disassembly obscures rather than reveals.  §

So it’s January 1st, 2021.

Every year since God knows when, I’ve spent weeks beforehand writing thoughts about the passing year to be published on the 31st of December.

Not this year.

The year 2020 was hard. The end of the year 2020 was hardest of all, and it’s still here, dragging on, its effects continuing.

— § —

Our second dog has been very sick this month, and likely won’t live very far into 2021. She had emergency surgery in early December to save her life, but in the process we found that she likely has advanced cancer.

She’s only four years old.

We lost our other dog not so long ago, the dog that had been with us since before the kids were born. Now it’s this one’s turn. It will be a long few months, or weeks, or days watching her decline.

The last three weeks have already been a decade long, and on this first day of the new year, their weight is massive.

— § —

Also massive is a new weight, one that’s been creeping up on me all year. I don’t know what to call it. It’s the weight that parents get as their children grow.

Some parents get it earlier, I think. I believe my ex-wife did. She used to tell me how she couldn’t cope with the empty house when the kids weren’t there.

I don’t experience it like that, exactly, but I know that I do and think irrational things when the kids aren’t here, like I don’t know what to fill the space with any longer.

It’s not about the material circumstances of life, it’s about the cognitive and emotional circumstances of life.

The kids are getting older. When they were young, they were a part of me. It was difficult to know where they ended and I began. Everything I did, I did with kids in mind, for a decade.

Now they are increasingly self-sufficient, and increasingly independent. They have their own thoughts and they can make their own sandwiches. This is right. This is proper and good.

But it leaves open the question of what I am, as apart from being a father. And the answer is that I don’t know any longer. I don’t even know what I’d like to be any longer, as apart from being a father. But life happens in stages, and this stage is wrapping up.

— § —

I’m sitting here on January 21st, 2021, at 9:00 in the morning, as just me. Kids are individuating. One dog is gone, the other dog is fading away. All of the old routines, which normally I think provide parents with some inertia—places that you go every summer, things that you do every week, and so on—disappeared in 2020.

The routine of things that you do as a family without thinking about them—that soothe the passage of time, that change glacially, that you do even though you can’t remember when or why you started—were wiped out in an instant this year.

We are starting from scratch, and in this from-scratch world, there are to be no dogs and relatively mature children that don’t need all that much from me.

I’ve been sitting here all week thinking about going back to work on the 4th after being off for weeks. I can’t imagine doing the work. I will, but at the moment, just three days prior, I simply can’t imagine it. The academic career that was my reason for existence for decades didn’t happen. I barely even noticed before, but I notice now.

Who am I?

What am I for?

What should I be doing with myself?

The world has lost millions of lives, and my own country has lost hundreds of thousands over 2020. I wonder how many selves were lost?

— § —

I tried “dating” again this year, which is not to say that I went on any dates, but I did reach out to a few people and do a few dating website things that led to a number of phone conversations.

Dating is not the answer.

These people are strangers. I don’t care about them, and I don’t want to care about them. That’s not where I am. There is no excitement. It’s not like when I was young, and I was interested and curious and perhaps a little too beset by anticipation about what might happen next.

I just don’t care right now. It’s an imposition. I found myself resenting the people I’d started interactions with. I found myself on a second or third phone call being unfairly angry at these poor women that I had to be on the phone at all, feeling as though I had better things to do, as though they were imposing on me. Even though I’d initiated.

And then I’d get off the phone and all those better things to do were nowhere to be seen.

— § —

Am I starting the year 2021 depressed?

Is this what depression feels like?

I don’t think so. I don’t feel any of those things they talk about in depression pamphlets (“no longer take pleasure in activities that you normally enjoy” and “don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better” and all of that stuff).

It’s not that I don’t take pleasure in activities that I normally enjoy. It’s that I have legitimately no idea what it is that I enjoy. The activities that I have previously enjoyed—scholarship, parenthood, wanderlust—are not available to me any longer. What ought to take their place?

It’s not that I don’t believe there’s any way things will ever get better; it’s that I don’t know what better and worse are at this stage of the game and that feels a bit like being dropped in the middle of the desert with no map and no compass.

Which way to go?

Does it matter?

Surely it does! It may very well be that this direction over here leads to a city in just a mile or two, but 10 degrees off in either direction and you die of heat exhaustion within a day.

But the fact that there are better directions and worse directions reveals exactly nothing about what those might be.

You have no choice but to rotate blindly two or three times and then set off in some direction knowing that with 360 degrees on the compass, it’s more likely than not that you won’t select just the right vector for your march and will die in the desert, perhaps ironically having missed civilization by—at the start of your journey—facing just smidge too far to the right or to the left.

— § —

Dog is curled up in the bathroom next to the heater vent. I can’t tell any longer whether she feels well or feels terrible. I don’t want her to suffer, but it’s the nature of dogs not to reveal their suffering in explicit terms.

And when a dog has been through emergency major surgery leaving a 10 inch incision scar and then more than a vet visit a week for an extended period of time, wearing a cone and being somewhat groggy throughout as a matter both of recovery and of painkillers, all the habits and indications disappear.

She’s just curled up by the heater, full stop. Any deeper meaning is lost. Just like the kids, who have become more opaque, as kids do, when they get older.

I have spent my entire life as a man of the “deeper meanings.”

Now all I have is the surfaces of things. The cigar that’s just a cigar.

Some have described this state of life as being “simple” but I experience it to be anything but. It’s easy to make decisions and take actions when there are a hundred factors to weigh. You make a spreadsheet, cook up an algorithm, do the research. I’m good at that.

What to do when there’s nothing but the clothes on your body and the clock on your wall? When there are decisions to make but no particular factors to consider?

What I feel to start the year isn’t paralysis (as my ex-wife would no doubt describe it) or fear (as some of my friends would probably describe it), but rather a kind of solitary blind-deafness.

— § —

The year 2020 emptied life of so much content for so many people.

I am one of those people. Ten years ago I was a professor and researcher and author. My new daughter and first child had just been born. My wife was lovely, my dog was amazing, my favorite books lined my shelf. I lived in the greatest city in the world, knew dozens of people that I saw every day in my neighborhood, on the subway, and on campus, and I loved all of it and all of them deeply.

Now I don’t know what I do. I haven’t written recently enough to be an author. The daughter is a tween who increasingly wants to live her own life and frankly doesn’t need much from me apart from a loving word here and there, which I’m happy to give, but which leaves the vast majority of the day to me, where I sit in an office chair and look at a screen because I work from home in a digital industry that could frankly be any industry—the world would be no different. There is no wife. The dog is dead. I know my children and one or two distant friends, and that’s it. I live in an even more sprawling distant suburb of an already very sprawling western hub; the nearest human souls to me as the crow flies are those of my neighbors, whom I’ve never met (any of them, in any direction, despite having lived here for a decade now). They are dozens or hundreds of yards—rather than just a few feet—away. I don’t hear them through the walls; I’ve never heard them at all. Those favorite books sit dusty on a shelf and haven’t been opened in years. They lost their flavor once I was no longer an academic—once they were no longer relevant to my daily life and thoughts.

Anything part of my life as a New York academic—the one I built toward for most of my life—was swept away by this decade. Anything I’ve tried to build since then was largely swept away by 2020 itself. Things are startlingly close to tabula rasa.

— § —

The state of things for 2021 is “on the wrong track, choices and action needed.”

The question for 2021, more importantly, is:

What now?