Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Aron Hsiao Ph.D.

I’ve worked in a wide variety of very public roles and written a number of books. In my “real life” I’ve had an audience varying from hundreds of thousands to millions over the years, across big media, online media, and academic media.
Some of you may also know me from the classroom, as I’ve taught at a decent array of major universities, in topic areas from linguistics to anthropology to sociology to cultural studies and media. I am not currently teaching.
Companies and Brands
If you’re wondering if I'm the “same Aron Hsiao that...” then, in fact, I probably am. I won't mention all of the companies, brands, and publications here because many of them won’t want to be directly associated with a blog like this one.
On Google
But if you’ve searched Google for “Aron Hsiao” then you’ve found me. The writer me, the professor me, the photographer me, the technology expert me, and so on. All of those pages and pages of results are, in fact, me. I am not aware of any other Aron Hsiao that has recently (in a decade or more) ranked in the first dozen-plus pages of Google’s results.

Born February 29th, 1976
Ph.D. Sociology (The New School, 2014)
M.A. Social Science (Chicago, 2004)
B.A. Anthropology (Utah, 2001)
B.A. English (Utah, 2001)
7 Books
Thousands of articles
1 Life
2 Kids
5 Goldfish
2 Cats
1 Dog
Lived in Salt Lake City, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Portland, and now... Provo.
Myers-Briggs INFP/INTP

I started “blogging” for the first time in 1999 at twenty-three years old, as I was going through my first serious breakup. Without meaning to, I continued to blog on a personal basis more or less without interruption after that. Now it’s been going on seventeen years. All of that content (well, most of it) is here, in one place.
In professional life, I have also ended up spending a decent amount of time blogging for an income for others. Still do.
But after all these years, Leapdragon remains home.
Many have questioned the wisdom of maintaining a site like this one, and from 2007 through 2015 I kept it increasingly obscure online. I have grown tired, however, of hiding myself behind a “professional” cardboard cutout. I’m forty years old and my life, like the lives of many others, gets more complicated by the day, personally and professionally.
It’s time to just be me again, in public, and let the chips fall where they may. So here I am.

Politics: Mixed—Old Left + Old Right (Fuck the SJWs)
Music: Sonic Youth, Einstürzende Neubauten
Novel: 2666, Roberto Bolaño
Operating Systems: Mac OS, Linux (Android)
Aquarium Fish: Common goldfish, fully grown
Illumination Technology: Neon tubing
Rag: Counterpunch
Academic Work: Illuminations, Walter Benjamin
Work of Art: Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Helnwein
Art Medium: Still photography
Club/Pub: The Pub, Ida Noyes Hall, University of Chicago
City: New York City
Place: Antelope Island, Syracuse, Utah
Fabrication Material: Leather
Drink: Green Chartreuse
Beach: Ellwood Beach, Goleta, California
Design Language: Swiss/Modern/Bauhaus
Season: Fall

There’s no reason to post this. But I will anyway.  §

I don’t know exactly how long it’s been, but I sense that it’s been a while. In a way, it hardly matters; very few people read here any longer. It’s not the late ’90s or early ’00s now. People have moved on in the ways that they connect with one another.

Just as well, as this entry is not going to be pleasant. It’s not that I have a dastardly plan, just that there have been so very many posts written in my head over the course of a day over the last weeks and months, and I can’t think of one of them that wasn’t ultimately sour in taste—so much so that over and over I’ve decided not to bother to even type them in.

— § —

I said this to someone in passing recently, but as I was walking the dog today it occupied me for some time: the social contract has been largely swept away.

Now I’m not naive enough to imagine that any social contract is ever stable. Social systems as such, even the most repressive ones, have a kind of dynamism and an intrinsic process of emergent social norming that together ensure that from generation to generation, indeed from year to year, the social contract evolves.

Nonetheless, there are degrees; there is evolution, and then there is violation or complete disregard.

There is a way to tell the story of my life in which the single thread that binds it all together—across neighbors, community leaders, family members, teachers, friends, significant others, forgetting for a moment about policymakers and administrators—is the free-falling experience of over and over again finding that the mutual obligations upon which I based my choices were not to be adhered to by others when the time came.

Yes, I know. Whine, whine.

But the thing is, I want you to step back a step. Don’t read it as being “about me,” but rather as “about anyone.” I said “tell the story of my life” above but what I see as relevant is not that I am the protagonist in this particular story, but that I increasingly think it is a story that has been playing out for one or several generations across the board. That is to say that it isn’t just the story of my life, but the story of a society—a society in which the social contract is collapsing.

A society of proliferating mass shootings, riots, corruption, relativism, “wellness-seeking,” and all the wrong kinds of “forgiveness.” That is to say—forgiveness not as a transcendental thing but as reluctant denial maintenance in the face of helpless disappointment and betrayal. We must all forgive because what else is there to do in such a society? The only alternative is to admit that we have been wronged and that we will continue to be wronged and that this is in fact equitable repayment for our own lazy wrongs in the same key, and that this train will not be stopped.

The alternative to this kind of “forgiveness” is, in many practical ways, the flame and the bullet. And avoiding those seems at least expedient and sensible at a superficial level.

Of course, the universe does not operate at a superficial level—

— § —

Still, at a personal level, you can’t live your life by legal contract; you have to do your best to uncover others’ values through interaction and frank discussion and then trust them and your understanding of them or, alternatively, decide not to do so.

I was born a trusting kid.

But as anyone (say, my closest friends or my ex-wife) can tell you, as an adult I’m something of a misanthrope. I’m sure this is largely why.

Call it my own naiveté or bad decision making, or say it’s because my brain is broken and I’m frankly autistic and unfit to comprehend human feelings as my wife once frequently did in public at my expense before she became my ex-wife (Am I wrong, for example, to read that as a violation of some implicit contract between man and wife?), the fact remains that I just don’t like people all that much because it looks to me as though—even when I’m not involved in an interaction and just observing their relations with others—people are generally amoral creatures out to glorify themselves at the expense of others.

More to the point, and this is new over the last decade or so, I have the feeling that contra this evaluation of my own, they’d say that in fact all of the things that they did were tremendously ethical, moral, and right, and that it’s my antiquated understanding of human obligation, which somehow gave us the Crusades and colonialism and the Holocaust, and whatever else, that is not just immoral but in fact frightening.

— § —

I find most people to be, in short, rather inhuman today, and I find this state of things to be accelerating.

Most people today would argue precisely the opposite—that people of the contemporary west and indeed all of modern, enlightened society, not to mention the society itself, are more human than they’ve ever been.

My response to that is:

You cannot become more human when you do not even know what human is.

It is my position that they do not know what human is.

And that someday soon, they will—the vast majority of them—be shocked and aggrieved to find that the story really does end with their death, which they’d always read rather like the claims on laundry detergent boxes: a lot of sound and fury untied to any actual real-world phenomena.

— § —

I have graduated to the treadmill.

When I was young every single teen boy, down to a one, swore earnestly that he’d never get on the corporate treadmill, never be part of the rat race, never fade away somewhere in suburbia working his nine-to-five job, unappreciated by community, unappreciated by wife (or worse, divorced and alone), subject of a largely forgotten existence as a tiny cog in a spectacularly vast and impersonal economic machine.

I can’t deny that that’s now me. I’ve finally arrived.

Like the rest, I set out to do something more, to be something intentional, to find a story or a hero’s journey that made life worth the price of entry.

I made it farther than many. I lived in all of the most interesting of our major North American cities. I both authored and edited books. I dated interesting and diverse people. I had drinks inside circles of power. I got advanced degrees and more advanced degrees. I started companies and social media platforms. I attended conferences overseas and married exotic foreigners. I was paid by universities, dot-coms, think tanks, and governments. I actually turned down a job at the United Nations.

But time has caught up to me, as it catches up to everyone.

Now I have to admit that for months at least, I travel forward in time with no intelligible story at all to tell. I wake up. I work a nine-to-five corporate job of no particular consequence outside the company itself. I finish late. I eat one of the same four or five things I always eat. I go to bed. I do it all again.

Being a parent carried me for some time—there is an intrinsic heroism and unpredictability in parenting that can mask the stasis in life that lies beneath.

But at length your children grow old enough that most of the time they neither want nor need any particular input from you. Mine are there. And that is, of course, right and proper. They increasingly find their own friends, their own hobbies, their own paths into life.

As my children accelerate into this new stage, even though it’s relatively early days yet, what’s left behind is just me and whatever it is that I have, in the meantime, become.

And what I have become is the guy who looks back at the things I say I’ve done in life and can’t quite believe that any of that is or was ever real, because the current state of my life is very simply that: I wake up. I work a nine-to-five corporate job of no particular consequence outside the company itself. I finish late. I eat one of the same four or five things I always eat. I go to bed. I do it all again.

There is something else there, beneath the surface. It waxes and wanes. At times I can access it, though I don’t know what to do with it. In recent weeks and months I can’t once again. I have the vexing feeling of waiting and a vexing uncertainty about whether I am waiting on myself or waiting on God, and about whether this waiting is the right thing.

— § —

Lack of companionship has been a constant problem since two years into my eight-year marriage. I’ve been alone and largely ignored for a very, very long time.

It’s not existential for me. Things frankly might be somewhat better if it were. I can go about my daily business and be fine. In fact, it’s eminently compatible with the misanthropic outlook that I struggle with. I’m sure a therapist would have all kinds of things to say here about defense mechanisms and so on, but of course the problem with therapists is that they’re not interested in moral principles and objective meaning, they’re interested in yoga, wellness, and subjective meaning. They’re false prophets, in other words, and I’ve had enough of those.

But it’s true that, as a few kind women have noted but not wanted to directly say over the last couple of decades, I seem lonely. I sure do.

Problem is that I struggle to meet anyone that it’s both appropriate to incorporate into my life and that I at the same time want to incorporate into my life. No, I’m not talking about dating eighteen-year-olds or anything like that. I’m talking about the apparent tensions between propriety, availability, and reasoned desirability.

I’m rather determined to meet what I see to be my obligations even if virtually everyone in the world tells me that they’re not my obligations. This severely limits the dating pool from the start on a simply demographic basis at my age. Pair this with the fact that most of the population of women at any age are now living their Instagram Best Life and are thus, frankly, rather off-putting if not outright disgusting, and there’s just not anyone left to talk to.

— § —

All of this is not to say that I don’t know any great people. I do know some truly great people. Most of them are younger than me, and I get to play something between mentor and elder community member for them. A few others are married.

But it is true that most of the people out there today are not people I want much to do with. Granted, a certain amount of this is a matter of the rotten values that they hold that are themselves transient, the result of a deeply evil zeitgeist more than of the individuals themselves.

Yet there’s also an unattractive story in that fact, since it implies that the individuals themselves are not made of particularly strong stuff—do not, as a general rule, have much in the way of structural fibre or integrity.

No, as my ex-wife points out, people aren’t perfect and it’s unfair to expect them to be, but what I generally can’t cope with is the degree to which everyone is so blasé or even gleeful about their imperfections and narcissisms now, the latter two now often consciously argued to be virtues, despite what I read as subconscious doubt about this position.

If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, is the self-righteous individual proclaiming to be their virtues all of the things that are so very clearly their vices.

If there’s one thing I can’t stomach, in other words, it’s an entire society of pervasive lies.

Close behind is “self-forgiveness,” which I find to be an abhorrent concept. It is for others to forgive us. It is for God to forgive us. It is not for us to forgive ourselves. That’s more of the bullshit being sold by therapists, who have done at least as much to destroy western civilization as the last several U.S. presidents.

Not sure how we got from relationships to lies, but whatever.

Point being: There are times when I distinctly believe that I can see through people. I couldn’t always, but in the last few years, I am often sure that I can. I don’t like it. I’d rather not. I know some great ones. But not many. The rest I will avoid.

— § —

I could sit here and do this for hours and hours and for many hundreds of pages. As I mentioned, it’s a large assortment, that assortment of blog posts that have passed through me without being keyed in over the last several months.

But as I also mentioned, most of them were variations on a theme, and the theme was not a particularly edifying or positive one, so I let them pass into the oblivion of the mental past.

This one is here because it’s been a while, and at some point to think of so many posts over so many days and type none of them in also feels like lying.

In short, it was time to put something here that was new.

So here it is.

— § —

Have I become something of the trad, cloistered monk, ranting and raving from within the walls about everything revolting happening without? Yes, yes I have.

Does that make me a hypocrite? I can’t tell but I leave open the possibility. It is for others and for God, not for me, to judge.

Do I have anything else to say today?

I don’t think I ought. Do you?

Let’s call that a “no,” then.

Here’s how the song of the divorced goes.  §

“My family was hell on earth, so I got divorced.
Now my family is paradise
but I’m doomed to suffer losing it over and over again
every few days,
for the rest of time.”

At 45 years old, you don’t get to have imaginary friends any longer.  §

Turning 45 tomorrow.

Found myself listening to Ben Folds songs, starting with “Still Fighting It.”

Spent all day working to finish the remodel on what will be my daughter’s bedroom.

Decided to make a blog post. Then decided that I didn’t have the internal resources to do it, felt like I didn’t want to confront what I was thinking or feeling.

Came to make the post anyway.

Don’t actually know what I’m thinking or feeling. If there was a therapist here they would say it’s because I’m in denial and need to access something or open up and get in touch with or some stupid nonsense like that.

In fact, I don’t know because there’s not one thing, there are a million things. Like:

  • How can I be 45?
  • Isn’t it bad to be 45 and be alone?
  • But I’m not really alone, I have my kids, right?
  • Ah, but will I always? I have an ex that’s a wildcard, and also they’ll grow up, no?
  • Isn’t it bad to mention kids in a discussion of not being alone? Seems harmful, right?
  • But can I really stand to date anyone? Haven’t I generally found that I hate it and that the people out there are shallow?
  • But does that matter?
  • Do I want to have better birthday plans than I have?
  • Do I like my life as it’s played out, or do I hate it?
  • How many years do I have left?
  • Do I care how I feel about my life? And if not, why not?
  • And is that question too meta to have any meaning?
  • And how do I feel about the weeks stretching into months stretching into years stretching into decades on the work treadmill?
  • But isn’t that what everyone ends up doing?
  • And is there really an alternative anyway?
  • And don’t I actually appreciate the job that I have and the accomplishments I’ve made?
  • And isn’t this too many rhetorical questions? What does it mean that I phrase everything in terms of rhetorical questions?
  • What does it mean that I ask what it means?
  • Should I go to bed right now and have an early night, or should I stay up late and read a book?
  • Won’t I regret it tomorrow if I stay up late and read a book?
  • Has that ever stopped me before?
  • What happens to the souls of your childhood imaginary friends once you stop imagining them?
  • What do I feel about turning 45?
  • Well?

That’s as far as I’ve gone so far, seems to be a brick wall. But now I can be satisfied that I’ve made a post, scratched that particular itch, and it wasn’t all that bad.

I think turning 45 is somehow much more psychologically disruptive.


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.


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.  §


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?

The end of the year. In 2020, more ephemeral than a dream within a dream.  §

This is the time of year when, for more than twenty years, I’ve lost myself in reflection about the passage of time, the year behind, and the year ahead.

This year, I am unable to do anything but hang on, moment by moment.

— § —

Cherished memories are among the most tragic things known to mankind, more evocative of the nature of being than anything else I can think of.

— § —

The trouble with western rationalism in general is that it imagines that metaphor is metaphorical.

In the small hours of the morning, when push comes to shove, it’s just you and heaven. That’s it.  §

Sitting, waiting for the storm to begin, exhausted and without the energy to eat.

This is a tonight thing, but it is also a life thing. Because a storm is blowing in from heaven for each and every one of us, eventually, and for everyone that we love.

It’s difficult to square that with living life. You don’t want to simply sit and wait, exhausted and without the energy to eat. But you also don’t want to do what so many now do, which is to pretend that time doesn’t exist, that all things are stable and eternal, that no good things must end—and then be shocked to misbehavior and fragmentation when they do.

I don’t quite know how to live and never have, but I suspect that no one else does either. It’s not the sort of thing that can be known or understood; it’s the sort of thing that can only be done, and in a way that will be done whether you like it or not.

You don’t live life so much as life lives you.

When you’re young, this isn’t what they tell you. The playbill that you got at the start of the show was full of quotes from parents and teachers and guidance counselors telling you about the importance of all of your choices.

But in fact, the choices hardly matter in the grand scheme of things. Be a doctor, be a hobo, be a millionaire, be poor, it’s all the same in the end, and the feelings are all the same in the end.

It’s not about the choices, it really is all about… I don’t know what. I was going to say character, but that’s not quite it. It’s not at all about how you live or the choices you make. It’s about how you are through the hanging-on that you do.

The nights are long and many of them are alone and really quite frightening when all is said and done. There’s no way around that; that’s life.

This is why it takes decades to raise a human—because even if you do it right, these are not the sorts of things that can or should be “taught” all at once.

The most troubling thing is that it’s everyone’s fault. Everyone’s.  §

Here’s a roundabout journey.

We were watching holiday films, as one tends to do with kids, and we needed something short. We’d run out of things that are still available on simple streaming services (now there are a hundred of them snapping up all the classics, it’s worse than cable) so we ended up watching a recording of “You’re a Good Skate, Charlie Brown” that I happen to have on a flash drive.

That led us to O Mio Babbino Caro, an aria that my daughter mistook for Silent Night at first, so I showed her a YouTube video of Charlotte Church singing it. Of course Charlotte was 13 years old when she sang this at the royal variety show and that got my daughter talking.

Next thing you know, we’re watching Charlotte Church singing Just Wave Hello, the official “global anthem” from the millennial celebrations at the end of 1999.

And as we watched it, the whole thing got more and more to my head. Global anthem. It’s a beautiful song, really, very alluring. But even more than that, I hadn’t thought about the millennial celebration in decades.

I am absolutely floored by just how far we’ve fallen. I remember it because I was in my mid twenties then, reaching into “real adulthood” and thus able to take it all in more or less properly. What strikes me?

  • There was so much hope for what the next epoch would bring.

  • There was so much optimism. The cold war was over. Classical liberalism had won. It was all The Enlightenment and fun TV from here on out.

  • The world really felt united. It was an “us,” a “we,” not just in the United States, but everywhere. The whole world tuned in and sang along with Charlotte. We were partying like it was 1999 and we knew we were all in it together.

  • Everyone spoke in these terms, from people on the street to the world’s leaders.

If you’d told me that by 2020 we’d be rioting in the streets, seeking to reimpose segregation in the United States, in a cold war with China, beaten back by terrorism and our own follies, and busy falling into authoritarianism ourselves in the midst of a crumbling West and a crumbling global order, I’d have said:

“How the fuck did we fuck up so incredibly badly? We have it all! All we have to do is keep eating McDonald’s, keep going to work, and keep watching TV!”

It’s honestly depressing. And also somehow edifying to think back to that time. For a moment, we really did come together as a planet, for a few short years in the ’90s.

Everyone wants to think we’re so superior now, morally, to who we were then. We’re not. We took progress and turned it into priggishness and petty conflict, and we seem determined to drive these until the end of the road.

Stupid humanity. At least we got a global anthem out of it. Not that anybody remembers. It may as well have been a thousand years ago.

It all disappears and then you have it hanging around in your head all the time.  §

They’re right when they say that the reason creativity goes as you age is because everything is held closely. The control stands in for the tsunami.

It’s not seeking, not finding, not a journey; it’s just a flash in the sea of forever.  §

Out there somewhere ahead, you can see the end of the road.

Just faintly. Just on the horizon. Maybe it’s a mirage. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s the threshold between here and there, now and then, the denoument.

On one side and the other, a blur. Time, stationary, as you rush past it. You try to see colors but really it’s all moving too fast; it blends to gray; pure motion.

The road vibrates a little.

Out there, somewhere ahead, you can see the end of it.

Just faintly. Just on the horizon. Maybe it’s a mirage. Maybe it’s not.

Frost on the glass. Book after book. Daughters and seasons.  §

My daughter came into the kitchen while I was sweeping and said,

“Dad, reflect on your place in life.”

She didn’t say it as preface to anything. She meant exactly what she said. I said,

“I do that pretty much all the time.”

She then said,

“Good for you. My place in life is that I’m your daughter.”

That was it. She left the room.

— § —

I wrote my first book when I was 15 years old.

I was already at university but I wasn’t old enough to drive. I had a Tandy Model 102 laptop—reporters used to use them, look it up—and while I waited every day after classes for my mother to come and pick me up, I’d sit and write chapters.

I wrote the whole thing in about a semester.

It was never published, but I still have a copy somewhere. Frankly, it probably could have been, looking back, but I had no idea how to go about things then.

It was already autobiographical, in a way. It was about dropping out of high school to go to college—pitfalls and success tips.

— § —

I didn’t grow up.

It has become more and more clear to me as time wears on that while others around me aged, moved on, grew up—I didn’t.

Right before my daughter had come in, I was listening to Seasons, that song by Chris Cornell from Singles that defines the early ’90s in some ineffable and inescapable way. It’s still my song. Every note, every word.

It’s often remarked that I look young for my age. Last person to tell me that was my doctor, and he wasn’t lying. My hairline isn’t receding. I don’t have many wrinkles. I look around me at people my age and I think they look old.

When she left, I unpaused the song and continued to listen to it as I swept the floor, washed the countertops, thought about how I still wear jeans and a black tee and leather shop boots and think it’s fine, like the world never moved on.

— § —

They say that if some event catches you out, has an impact, arrests the full stride of your life and prevents you from striding any further, you stay that emotional age forever.

I suspect it’s not just emotional. There’s at least a bit of the physical in there, too.

Something stopped me, froze me all the way back then and I haven’t moved since. Sometimes I sit and try to figure it out—try to remember what may have happened to capture me and never let me go, not let me progress, grow up like all of my peers.

I don’t know what it was.

A lot of things happened, but none of them that I remember seem like the right one. They just all seem like the things that happened. But there must be something that I never got over, because it’s clear that I’m not over it.

Otherwise I wouldn’t sit around and listen to Seasons on repeat.

— § —

Monday is double-malaise day, and this particular Monday doubly so.

It’s no one thing, just the accumulation of many, many small- and medium-sized things that happen, hour after hour, until you’ve had enough and you’re ready to sit down hard and sigh.

Like an old man.

And yet—and yet.

— § —

For a brief moment, I thought I might date someone.

Then, like always, I had the realization that our ages were mismatched. Not in years, but in some other way, in the other way that matters.

In the way that leads me to think about my place in life all the time and to listen to Seasons on repeat.

You can’t really accuse me of self-indulgence. I hold down a good job. I’ve climbed the corporate ladder, written a small pile of books, earned a Ph.D. I parent two kids and make sure that they do their homework and carry their school equipment with them when they go out the door.

I keep the kitchen floors clean.

But it’s really not about all of that, is it? Not really.

It’s about something else—not just a matter of thinking all the time about your place in life, but also a matter of just what you say that place is, once all is said and done.

I don’t care about any of the things I’ve done.

I think the greatest things I’ve ever done are little things that nobody knows about. Particular pictures I’ve taken. Blog entries now and then on this blog. An old watch that I once repaired. The book that I wrote at fifteen and never published. The cat that I adopted from a McDonald’s dumpster. The fact that I helped the kids make their names out of Lego blocks.

You can’t carry that value system into the world of adults. So, frankly, I never really entered the world of adults at all.

— § —

I wrote my first actually published book when I was 22 years old. I was wrapping up my double major. Macmillan called me and said that I was on a list of undergraduates with expertise and asked if I wanted to write a book. I said why not.

I wrote the book. They printed it. I took pictures of myself standing next to it in Canadian bookstores on road trips with single friends.

I kept on writing books for various publishers until I was 30. Then I stopped.

By the time I was interested in the fact that I was writing books, I was done writing books.

Now they sit on the shelf like archaeological artifacts and never get dusted off. I half forget what’s in them.

— § —

Once upon a time, I threw a frisbee down a giant hill next to a river over and over and over again, morning after morning for hours, so that my little big dog could run underneath them and catch them.

He’s dead now, long dead in fact, but the air that was under those frisbees is still out there somewhere, floating around New York.

— § —

Maybe it’s all for naught, I don’t know.

Days pass. Some days, like today, are tiring enough that the malaise kicks in. But what it never does is fix me, wake me from my paralysis, caught somewhere in the ’90s as a young man thinking about my place in life.

I wasn’t lying to my daughter.

I think about it all the time. It may be the only thing I ever really think about.

— § —

There’s another way to explain to people (my ex-wife among them) why I don’t date. It’s because the people I meet never become real to me. They’re all ghosts in a way; they must have lives somewhere, but not anywhere that I can access, not in any way that I can taste or smell. They’re fictional standing in front of me.

And at some point you feel guilty about that. You realize that you can’t give them what they want—the respect of personhood—no matter how hard you try. There just isn’t enough of them to substantiate themselves.

I think my ex-wife would agree with this if she sat down and thought about it enough. People are thin, like diner coffee or clifftop air. They’re barely there.

I have maybe five or six people in my entire life that exist.

The rest is fiction.

Irony being that I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but seem unable to do it. Maybe because you have to be real and see real to create imaginary. If you’re already living imaginary, one step less real is—nothing at all.

— § —

It’s December, but only for a moment.

Then, it won’t be again. Time is a bit like wind. It passes and there’s a bit of a chill involved and then it’s gone before you can really grasp what you’ve experienced—but it hasn’t stopped because it never stops, even if at any particular moment you can’t put your finger on it.

It all blends together.

— § —

Around bedtime, my daughter asked to see a picture of my former cat—whose life overlapped hers by a year or two at most. I knew there was a picture here, so I used Google to pull up the entry and show it to her.

She said, “You have your own website?”

I told her that I had several, and showed them to her, and then showed her my Amazon author profile and my photo library for sale on Alamy and a couple other bits of online biography.

She said, “Are you famous?”

I said, “Not really. Rather, I’d say that I can be found if someone wants to look.”

She said, “Oh, like me. Former national champion at taekwondo. Nobody really knows, but if someone wanted to look for you, or to look for the kinds of things you once did, they’d find you.”

I said, “Yeah, pretty much that.”

She said, “I think that’s better than being famous, because it’s real.”

Then we looked through some of my photos and she told me that she liked the nature pictures that I took. She recognized some of the places. She was excited.

Finally I told her it was time for bed and we turned off the tablet.

— § —

Once, as a teenage undergrad, I sat in a graduate film class I’d been given special permission to take, in the darkness, in a theater somewhere on the University of Utah campus, watching a French new wave film.

I don’t remember the film at all.

I frankly don’t remember anything I saw on the screen all semester.

I vividly remember the the darkness, the air around me, the spring in the seats, the cold metal sides of the seats, and the fishing hat full of hand-tied flies that the professor wore.

I got an ‘A’ in the class.

The professor wrote me a recommendation to attend the University of Chicago, where for my first week I did nothing but play video games in my tiny dorm room and order Chinese takeout—a week that I remember more clearly than anything else about my time at Chicago.

The tiny room, the little Thinkpad, the dim table lamp, the window overlooking the Midway, frost on the glass.


— § —

What does it mean that my daughter told me to reflect on my place in life?

It’s a strange moment when you recognize yourself in your child.

But strange or not, the moment passes.

Life goes on—well, while it does, that is.