Sunday, November 17, 2019

There is no crisis in reproduction

This is a solid, if longwinded, NYT piece about how there are many countries that have fertility rates below replacement levels. While I'd like to see our species reduce its fertility rates (which I’ll get to in a second), I am also a critic of systems that make it difficult for parents (and unappealing for would-be parents) to have a child. I'd rather we borrow from the Danish model, in which parents are given generous maternity/paternity leave, free health care, free daycare, and affordable college education. So I guess you could say I’m pro-parent and pro-child, but also pro-depopulation.

And, in articles such as this one, I’m struck by one consistent and amazing omission: a reduction in the fertility rate is actually good! Why don't writers acknowledge this? A discussion on reduced fertility rates is typically framed as a bad thing (as a “crisis in reproduction,” which is a phrase I've plucked from the article). It's seldom framed as a "crisis in overpopulation." In my 36 years, the world population has grown from about 4.5 billion in 1983 to 7.7 billion in 2019. Who knows what it'll be by the time I'm 80. These billions of people over-consume, pollute, change our climate, cause species to go extinct, remove habitat, and generally make the world less beautiful and sustainable. We've done amazing things, too, as a burgeoning species, but our growing numbers threaten the very soils, waters, ecosystems, and climates on which our existence depends.

The earth’s health is affected most by two things: overconsumption and overpopulation. We sometimes acknowledge the first, but it seems almost taboo to criticize the second.

Why are these articles framed as crises: crises for economies and crises for old folks who won’t have enough taxpayers or caregivers to support them? (As harsh as it may sound, I see this as faulty prioritization, as well as an infantilization of an age group who might do better to adapt to trying circumstances than we may think.) Why don’t we acknowledge how reduced fertility rates may be a beneficial change our species is in the process of making, or how reduced rates are opportunities that ought to be encouraged and replicated? We seldom hear about the benefits of fewer people on this planet: more resources for each individual; more space to roam; more enchantment in the form of undisturbed natural features and replenished animal populations; a more sustainable planet; a longer habitation on earth for us; not to mention fewer crowds, less smog, replenished fisheries, and less traffic.

Before I die, I hope to see the human population begin to proactively dwindle (and my vision features neither death camps nor forced sterilizations) to a more sustainable level of, say, 1 billion. I don’t know what an appropriate U.S. population would be, but certainly less than 100 million. (It’s 329 million today.)

So, yeah, I don't see a "crisis in reproduction." I see a crisis in how the modern economy makes life a living hell for parents. And I see a crisis in common sense: in terms of the human population, less ought to be considered more.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Who has less taste: us or the cineplex?



[T]he fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures. And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. — Martin Scorsese

We've been saying forever that "they don't make movies like they used to." That's mopey nostalgic nonsense. There are tons of good movies that come out every year. The problem is that cineplexes force-feed us little other than non-nutritious superhero, animated, and franchise films (with a bad teen smartphone stalker thriller thrown in). When the Scorsese article published eleven days ago, here is what was playing at my old hometown Regal Cinema in Niagara Falls, NY: 

Terminator 6
Maleficent 2
The Joker
Addams Family
Zombieland 2
Arctic Dogs
Countdown
Harriet
Black and Blue
Geminiman
Abominable

As cineplex offerings go, this list could be worse. But of these eleven films, five are part of a franchise. Seven are animated or contain loads of CGI (which doesn’t make a film bad, but there’s a strong likelihood the movie will be an emotionally-uncomplicated visual feast). The Joker is very good. Harriet looks cheesy (but it’s about an important subject). Abominable appears to be a serviceable animation film. The rest are a slightly better than average selection of unchallenging, dumbed-for-the-masses movies, the dietary equivalent of a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. 

I’m a film snob, but not a complete snob. I love popcorn blockbusters like Avatar, Gravity, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to name a few. Who doesn’t like Kraft Mac and Cheese? But I know I also need to eat my vegetables.

The movies above could lead you to believe that movies have all been dumbed down and that film, as an art form, is dead, but movies are as good as ever. Playing elsewhere are: 1. Parasite, a Korean movie getting rave reviews; 2. The Lighthouse, an interesting-looking drama; 3. The King, a very solid period drama about palace intrigue with a nice dash of action; 4. Tell Me Who I Am, a solid documentary about child abuse; 5. The Laundromat, a well-intentioned flop that nevertheless tried to be interesting and about something important; 6, Dolemite Is my Name, a solid biopic starring Eddie Murphy. Plus Judy, By the Grace of God, Pain and Glory, Motherless Brooklyn, and probably a handful more. What if Regal showed something more like this: 

Terminator 6
The Joker
Parasite
Zombieland 2
The Lighthouse
Harriet
Geminiman
Abominable
The King
Dolemite Is my Name
Tell Me Who I Am

That’s a respectable and hardly pretentious selection—a filet of salmon and a side of broccoli to go with your Mac and Cheese. We could zone out and forget our troubles with Zombieland, see a bit more of the world with Parasite, and grapple with questions of that identity and abuse in Tell Me Who I Am.

A few questions:

Why is Netflix increasingly becoming the platform for character and dialogue driven movies—movies like The Irishman, The King, and Dolemite Is my Name. Are production companies uninterested in movies like The Laundromat because they know cineplexes won’t show them, even though they get directed by renowned filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and star legends like Meryl Streep? 

And — more significantly — I wonder: Where does good taste comes from? Are cineplex selections so crappy because the movie-going public has no taste and the cineplexes, out of sheer financial viability, must give us what we want? Or is our taste so awful because the cineplex force-feeds us this crap and we’re less exposed to the good stuff? The answer to that is probably more complicated. Enhanced taste likely involves our quality of education as well as the sort of shows, music, books, and movies we’re exposed to from childhood on. It doesn’t all start and end at your local Regal.  

Not to sound melodramatic, but these things really matter. For the health  of our society, we could use more Amour and less Too Fast, Too Furious. This past summer, an Italian study found that children who’d been exposed to low-brow TV had significant lower math and reading scores, and that later in life they were less civically minded and less politically active than peers who grew up exposed to more enriching television programs. I feel like I’m a beneficiary of a good media education. I didn’t grow up in a house with shelves of books or overhear conversations about politics and history. But the local Video Factory and Blockbuster had all the necessary classics, and I ate them up. I had a movie theater about a five minute drive from my house — the Summit 6 — and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d seen almost all of the AFI’s Top-100 (and very nerdy) list of the best movies ever. It was my way of acquiring a bit worldliness and wisdom from a place called Wheatfield.  

But the selection of movies at the Summit 6 was probably just as lousy as it is today at my local Regal, and we moviegoers were probably just as undemanding in our tastes. We can’t hope for the market to educate us: it’ll just keep feeding us as many fructose films as we can take. I suppose the only thing that can be done is to consume well, mock the bad, and give our kids good movie educations from the start. And maybe some future generation will have something better to watch than Terminator 28. 

Sunday, October 20, 2019

"Joker" reviewed


Joker is a very good movie and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is perhaps the finest of his career. Given his CV, that’s saying a lot. The movie made $96 million in its first weekend, breaking the record for movies opening during the month of October. It has an 89 percent audience approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I find all the fanfare and acclaim encouraging because Joker is not a Star Wars or a comic book movie, even if it does indeed feature an iconic comic book character. (It’s more Taxi Driver than Venom.) It’s serious, it’s got a whiff of indie in it, and the subject matter is timely. It would be great if our blockbusters were more On Golden Pond than Logan, but if we must tell the origin story of a comic book character to get people to watch stories of social significance, then, well, so be it.

It’s amazing that one of the biggest box office hits of the year is actually a sad movie that places your feet in the shoes of the most disadvantaged. You feel the Joker’s loneliness, his rage, his pain. It’s been suggested that the inspiration behind the Joker’s character is a group of men known as “incels.” “Incels,” or “involuntary celibates,” commiserate with one another in the dark corners of the Internet and often digitally terrorize women. Self-avowed incels have committed at least four recent mass shootings, including Californian incel Elliot Rodger in 2014. I’m not sure if the filmmakers consciously decided to tell an “incel” story, but I think the suggestion is more than appropriate, given that the Joker is a lonely and disturbed man who violently responds to the frustrations and injustices that make up his daily existence.

This movie doesn’t glamorize violence, though it does have something to say about why some violence happens. And critics (I think wrongly) have scorned the movie because it humanizes a common and unquestioned villain—the disaffected white man. Some critics refuse to watch it, and goad others not to watch it, perhaps because swapping fury with pity and reexamining long-held beliefs and reshaping long-drawn identities are unpleasant contortions for one’s psyche to endure. In a viral tweet that got 55K likes and 16K retweets, Rachel Miller writes, 


I don't want to watch a movie that shows us the trauma that drove the Joker insane. I don't want to watch a well-intentioned but unstable man get bullied until he turns into a mass murderer. I don't want to watch a man get rejected by women as an excuse for his future of domestic abuse. I don't want to be shown what a poor, unfortunate underdog this man was who was sadly forced by circumstances… to take up a life of crime. I don't want to have sympathy for a man best known for his robbery, murder and arguable rape shoved down my throat for two hours. I don't want this to be sold as a relatable story that can happen to anyone with a bad enough day, and I don't want to be around any of the lonely white boys who relate to it… I don't know if there ever is a good time for a movie that paints mass murder as the logical conclusion of a socially isolated debatably neurodivergent white man being failed by the system, but I feel as though this is not fucking it.

CNN writer Jeff Yang says Joker is an “insidious validation of the white-male resentment.” The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, doing his best to find racial themes where there aren’t any, says “Joker is an intensely racialized movie” suffering from “obliviousness.” More Twitter: David Lo Pun-ch Nazis warns that Joker looks like “a sympathetic tale of a ‘wronged by society’ white dude and their entitlement to violence.” Hilary gro writes “is it really the best thing to keep making movies that portray disaffected white men doing violence as sympathetic?” (Credit to Alex Abad-Santos at Vox for the Twitter research.)





It’s as if these critics and tweeters are saying, “I don’t want to watch something that may get me to think about a group of people in a more compassionate and nuanced way.” Perhaps I’m being a little unfair: to give them the benefit of the doubt, the critics may simply be saying that the trajectory to violence in Joker is not in accord with up-to-date psychological research and the movie is therefore unenlightening, even counterproductive. If that’s the case, fair enough. But I disagree. The other thing about these tweets that amazes me is how incels (or “lonely white boy[s]” “white dude[s],” or “disaffected white men”) are almost universally mocked and ridiculed, and their misfortunes dismissed. I don’t want to sound alt-right or a member of men’s-rights group, but I want to push back against the trend of using the term “white man” as a pejorative. The term, slowly approaching the synonymity of “Nazi,” is bandied about by normally-thoughtful people with a carefreeness and nonchalance that is as troubling as it is unexamined. (I’ve had several conversations with people who, with startling casualness, condemned the “straight, white, male” identity to someone who is, well, a straight, white male.) Has it not occurred to these folks that one can be both a white, straight, man AND downtrodden? That we’re not all sexist ass-grabbing bosses or racist planet-ending CEOs? That we’re not all doing well?

Joker gives us a face to all the men (and women, too, but allow me to continue focusing on men) who are struggling. Cultural expectations of masculinity demand that men share less with one another. Men have fewer friends, and they experience more emotional isolation (which, research shows, is as detrimental to one’s health as smoking). In the U.K., 18 percent of men say that they don’t have a close friend and 35 percent report feeling lonely at least once a week. Twice as many men die of drug overdoses than women. Between 1999 and 2010 in the U.S., the rate of suicide among men in their fifties rose by 50 percent, which some analysts say has as much to do with isolation as economic anxieties. (This isn’t to say that other demographic groups have it easier, but allow me to continue to exclusively speak for a demographic that we dare not speak of with pity or compassion.) Perhaps next time we mock or ridicule incels or non-thriving white men, we should at least take a moment to reflect on how our society also leaves many of them behind, how our culture sometimes deprives them of essential human nutrients, and how the absence of these things can drive a person mad. After a school shooting, it feels good and reassuring to hurriedly channel our grief into an easy and accessible emotion — righteous anger — rather than doing the work to scrutinize our atomized, competitive, and lonesome society for manufacturing so much despair. Instead, we call them cowards, and losers, and hateful, and move on.

I have been blessed with a functioning-enough brain and okay-enough looks to have done okay in the dating department, but I’ve tasted enough loneliness and social invisibility to be able to comprehend, and thus sympathize with, men who are more substantially deprived. Most of us, though, would rather joke about how such a person can’t get a date, how they just need to hit the gym, or how, as white men, they have outsized notions of privilege. We’re trained to think, “Too bad! Buck Up. Your kind has had its advantages for long enough” (which is an unfair abstraction to impose on an individual who may not have, thus far, ever experienced any of these advantages). It’s as if we believe that a shoulder to cry on, a hug, and sexual attention are luxuries to be fought over in the marketplace of intimacy, not vital human needs to be generously dispersed in the human community. “Joker,” in this way, is doing something that ought not need doing: It provides a compelling portrait of an oppressed person who our society doesn’t want to see and who our society definitely doesn’t want to call oppressed.

I’m guessing that, regardless of our demographic (though maybe not so much the seriously-well-off), we’ve all felt oppressed by an unfair world. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world has turned against you. Movies like I, Daniel Blake or Falling Down capture this. We’ve all been there. A small medical procedure ends up costing you thousands. Your landlord doubles your rent. You’re trying to sort out a bill over the phone and the call drops after having been on hold for half an hour. Your car is making a funny noise. You’re paying too much for your phone bill. The cable company increases its rates yet again. You live with a daily onslaught of unforeseen and outrageous bills, taxes, and fees. The U.K., where I live now, has it’s share of problems, but at least here in Scotland we have free health care, a year’s worth of mostly-paid maternity leave, free undergraduate education, and the right to roam. Sometimes I think what passes for normal in the U.S. is borderline inhumane, and enough to drive us all mad. I still have one foot in North America, though. Just last week, I transferred a large sum of money from my U.S. bank to my U.K. bank, and my U.S. bank (Citizens Bank) unknowingly gave me an unfairly low currency exchange rate, stealing $1,000 from me. Later on, I called to inquire about the rate and they said I should have asked for a higher exchange rate. How the fuck am I supposed to know that I can haggle about a currency rate? Shouldn’t my bank try to help me? How can something so unjust exist? Has the world gone fucking crazy? It’s moments like these (and I feel comfortable saying this because I assume we’ve all felt this way) when we just want to blow the whole world up. We want to give expression to our rage. We want to punish the unfairness of the system. We want to push over a shelf in a supermarket, heave a brick through a bank’s glass wall, or just violently explode. It’s always just a passing thought, to be drowned beneath a beer, drained into the sewers of our psyche, or maybe, hopefully, cancelled out and forgotten by the good deed of someone else. But we get these thoughts when our rage reaches a rolling boil, and it’s then when I think I can begin to understand why those with fewer psychological resources commit atrocities. It’s partly because atrocities have been committed on them.

And (spoilers here) this brings me to my sole criticism of Joker. Society indiscriminately tortured the Joker, but the writers didn’t have the courage to let the Joker indiscriminately get his revenge on society. When the Joker kills the show host, played by Robert De Niro, he’s surgically seeking revenge, expressing his rage by discarding just a few bad apples. What really needs to happen, for complete catharsis (for both the audience and the Joker) is for him to take aim at the audience, who represents the greater society. We need the Joker to be more like Carrie, who, in a fit of rage in the 1976 movie, burns alive her allies as well as her enemies. In that movie, it feels weirdly right and good and true because we’ve all been in that mental space before. And such a scene serves an important warning to us all: treat one of us without dignity and we may all pay. In its final act, Joker, though a mostly-bold and ultimately good movie about how indignities lead to violence, pulled a punch.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Movie reviews from this week


I had a nice 5-for-5 movie binge this week. Rapid-fire reviews….

American Factory (available on Netflix) is a documentary that juxtaposes U.S. and Chinese working cultures. My dad, who’s been a factory worker in the U.K./U.S. for over fifty years, watched the movie and said the depiction of the Americans’ inferior work ethic is accurate. And while I was impressed with the efficiency and dedication of the Chinese workers, I found something disturbing in how the Chinese have normalized work as the principal component of their lives, seemingly prioritizing it over family, leisure, religion, or individual pursuits. The most striking scene was when the Chinese factory workers lined up for attendance and yelled out their work-number in sequence, as if they were soldiers. I asked my dad if his coworkers would ever do such a thing and he laughed and said, “that’s unAmerican.” This Chinese company (an automotive glass manufacturer) seems to have managed to persuade their employees that they’re working not just for themselves, but for the company and their country. The Chinese workers seem to have bought into this and they’re consequently driven by a higher purpose to sacrifice and work harder. The Americans, on the other hand, are only in it for the paycheck and probably half-resent having to spend forty hours a week doing mostly monotonous labor. The Chinese way is kind of creepy, but wouldn’t it be nice if we felt a little pride in our company and what we made? Have American factory workers ever felt this way (perhaps toward companies that provided good wages and benefits)? Or was it always about making a living? I’ve had a knee-jerk sense of resentment for every corporation I’ve worked for (Tops Supermarkets, Home Depot…), and I’m wondering if this is an unhealthy and irrational compulsion, or the trait of a people who are enlightened enough to know better than to buy into a company’s self-serving propaganda. There’s probably a good and ideal middle ground in which (with fair wages and benefits) we can be proud of our company without weirdly weaving it into our identities or allowing it to dominate our lives.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (Netflix). When I think back on this movie, it seems as if it was about everything and nothing. It doesn’t have anything new to say, but, as with all of Moore’s movies, I was entertained and disturbed (and my blood intermittently boiled) from start to finish.

Fatal Attraction. I watched this because it was featured on “The Rewatchables” podcast. The chemistry between the Michael Douglass-Glenn Close (and Michael Douglass-Anne Archer) characters was riveting, and I was entertained and horrified throughout. The subject is timeless: the temptation to philander and the fear of the consequences. The ending, though, was too commercial, and I don’t think the original and deleted ending (with Glenn Close committing suicide) would have been any better. It was a good movie that never found a good conclusion.

Mother! (Netflix). I’ve read that the movie is a metaphor for climate change. I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what it was about and what everything is meant to symbolize (the strange crystal in the writing den?), but the movie was like a disturbing dream, and if a movie sufficiently disturbs me, that’s usually enough for me to give it a thumbs up.

Once upon a Time in Hollywood. I’d more or less given up on Tarantino. I found Django and Hateful Eight too tedious and verbose. (Tarantino’s dialogue veers into zones of the eye-rolling surreal at times.) And I also have a strong distaste for Hollywood movies about Hollywood. But I loved this movie. I didn’t know where it was going and I didn’t know what it was (a modern-day Western) until it was over and done with.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Fall 2019 speaking tour schedule


Thur. Sept. 5 - Kenyon College (Gambier, OH), 7 p.m., Community Foundation Theater in the Gund Gallery, 101 1/2 College Drive, Gambier, Ohio 43022

Fri. Sept 6 - St. Edward High School (Lakewood, OH)

Mon. Sept. 9 - High Point University (High Point, NC), noon

Tue. Sept. 10 - Hampden-Sydney College (Hampden-Sydney, VA), 7:30 p.m., Gilmer Hall 019

Thur. Sept. 12 - Virginia Wesleyan University (Norfolk, VA), 11 a.m., Blocker Hall Auditorium

Mon. Sept. 16 - University of Scranton (Scranton, PA), 6 p.m., Moskovitz Theatre

Tue. Sept. 17 - West Chester University (West Chester, PA), 5:30 p.m., Sykes Student Union Theater 

Wed. Sept 18 - Muhlenberg College (Allentown, PA), 7:30 p.m. The Event Space

Fri. Sept. 20 - Donnelly College (Kansas City, KS), 2 p.m., Events Center (reservation required)

Mon. Sept. 23 - Franklin and Marshall College (Lancaster, PA),  7 p.m., Life Sciences and Philosophy Building 142

Tue. Sept. 24 - Haverford / Bryn Mawr College (Haverford, PA), 6:30 p.m., Dalton Room 300

Wed. Sept. 25 - Iona College (New Rochelle, NY) 

Fri. Sept. 27 - Phillips Exeter Academy (Exeter, NH)

Mon. Sept. 30 - University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH)

Tue. Oct. 1 - Endicott College (Beverly, MA)

Wed. Oct. 2 - Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, NY) 

Thur. Oct. 3 - Middlebury College (Middlebury, VT), 12:30 p.m., The Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, The Orchard (Room 103)

Fri. Oct. 4 - University of Albany (Albany, NY) 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Trip to the Isle of Lewis and Harris

The following are photos from a recent trip to the Isle of Harris and Lewis, one island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with two names. 





Callanish Stones, Isle of Lewis, Scotland. These stones were erected sometime between the years 2900-2600 BCE.







This sheep's wool will likely be transformed into a Harris Tweed outfit.





Tarbert, Harris

Monday, July 22, 2019

Let’s learn how to live well, before we live forever



“The man who has lived the most is not he who has counted the most years but he who has most felt life. Men have been buried at one hundred who died at their birth.” - Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Emile

Why prolong life if life is barely worth living?


I'm thinking of all the futurists out there, who talk about developing technologies to prolong human life or end the process of aging.

Joe Rogan has these guys on his podcast all the time. Harvard professor David Sinclair says we should consider aging a disease, as if it's the flu or tuberculosis. “It’s only because we all tend to go through [aging]," Sinclair said, "that we think it’s acceptable.”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens, spends a good portion of his sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, talking about the future of humankind. Harari points to a number of emerging initiatives, like the Gilgamesh Project, which aims to make humans immortal by eradicating all diseases. He predicts that we will become higher-functioning cyborgs (with computer implants and robotic enhancements) and that we will have far more control over our children’s genes. Harari excitedly writes on his website that, “Humans are going to upgrade themselves into gods. That is, humans will acquire abilities that in the past were considered divine, such as eternal youth, mind reading, and the ability to engineer life.”

Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist, advocates for technology that will allow us to upload our consciousnesses into machines, so that our minds, if not our bodies, can be immortal.

I am not against even the whackiest of these endeavors, but I am a bit bothered that these thinkers and their followers are entirely focused on prolonging human life before we’ve done the good work of improving human life. They talk about being transhuman before we've figured out how to best be human. They talk about living forever before we've learned the art of living well.

I realize that life has improved for many. Technology has helped to reduce global poverty and we've pretty much done away with wars. Steven Pinker says humankind, in many ways, has never had it better. I acknowledge that we’ve raised the standard of living, but I’m skeptical that we have done well to improve the quality of living. We're more peaceful, more literate, and fewer infants die at birth. But our long lives are often empty. Our cities are safer, but our communities are dead. Our peaceful times lack meaning and adventure. Our kids grow up depressed and addicted to screens.

Fertilizers, vaccines, GMO crops, and a thousand other technologies support almost 8 billion people, many of whom are rapidly advancing out of poverty. But I wonder if this is a bit like the Neolithic Revolution (a term that describes our species's transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer-herder). Historian Jared Diamond calls the transition to farming humanity's "worst mistake." Yuval Noah Harari says the farming/herding livelihood kept "more people alive in worse conditions." When hunter-gatherers were compelled to begin domesticating crops and animals, they lost their egalitarian societies and their varied and nutritious diets. They were suddenly exposed to slavery, taxation, epidemics, and grueling labor. In becoming sedentary subjects of the state and masters of the plow, they gained a lot, but they lost arguably more.

My point is that peace and prosperity and technology do not automatically lead to the good life. Progress can be existentially fatal.

Let’s look at the quality of life for the average American. Yes, he can vote, he’s free to buy his own home, and his doctors will keep him alive longer. But this is still a person who has bad habits, bad health, bad character, bad education, bad work, bad relationships, and bad deals.


1. Bad Habits 


- The average American spends ten hours a day looking at screens, including 4.5 hours watching shows and movies.

- The average American household watches 7 hours and 50 minutes of TV every day.

- Americans spend 7 percent of their life outdoors. (87 percent is spent indoors, 6 percent in vehicles.)

- 47,000 Americans committed suicide in 2017, the highest rate in the last half century.

- 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, which is four times as many deaths from overdose since 1999.


2. Bad Health


- According to a 2012 study by The Lancet, 41 percent of Americans qualify as sedentary for not getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

- In 2015, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that, among Americans over twenty years old, 71 percent are overweight and 38 percent are obese.

- More than 100 million Americans have diabetes or prediabetes.

- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.

- In the 2015–2016 school year, “half of all students surveyed reported having attended counseling for mental health concerns.” (Quote is from Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, which cites a 2016 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.)

- According to Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, the percentage of college students who describe themselves as having a mental disorder increased from 2.7 to 6.1 for male college students between 2012 and 2016 (that’s an increase of 126%). For female college students, it rose even more: from 5.8 to 14.5 (an increase of 150%)… One out of every seven women at U.S. universities now thinks of herself as having a psychological disorder, up from just one in eighteen women.


3. Bad character


- 62 million Americans voted for Donald Trump.


4. Bad education 


- I’m just going to quote this paragraph from Slate. I don’t mean to make this a partisan issue by pointing out Republican stupidities, but the Slate piece provides a nice summary that does the work for me:

As recently as 2016, 45 percent of Republicans still believed that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels”... A 2015 poll found that 54 percent of GOP primary voters believed then-President Obama to be a Muslim… Only 25 percent of self-proclaimed Trump voters agree that climate change is caused by human activities. Only 43 percent of Republicans overall believe that humans have evolved over time… Almost 1 in 6 Trump voters, while simultaneously viewing photographs of the crowds at the 2016 inauguration of Donald Trump and at the 2012 inauguration of Barack Obama, insisted that the former were larger.


5. Bad Work


- According to author Matthew Crawford of Shop Class as Soul Craft, American workers are increasingly experiencing “manual disengagement.” We aren’t growing crops, or making or manufacturing products anymore. Many of us now are cashiers and clothes-folders, which are jobs that many of us consider monotonous, meaningless, and unfulfilling.



- According to David Graeber, author of Bullshit Jobs, “a YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40 percent.”


6. Bad relationships 


- The AARP reports that 42 percent of Americans over age 45 experience chronic loneliness.

- 40 percent of U.S. adults report feeling alone, 47 percent feel “left out,” 27 percent feel misunderstood, 43 percent feel they’re relations are not meaningful, and 43 percent feel isolated. Generation Z (born after 1995) are the loneliest generation.


7. Bad deals 


- According to The Motley Fool, almost all of us are in debt. (81 percent of baby boomers are in debt, plus 80 percent of Gen Xers and 81 percent of Millennials.)

- If America's 2.2 million prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in the U.S., behind Houston and ahead of Phoenix.


***

What's all that about living forever? Who would want to live forever with lives like these? Perhaps a healthy, wealthy, well-educated man or woman from the Bay Area.

But I don't wish to shame these futurists for their prosperity or their desire to create history-changing technologies. And I'm no Luddite. If someone wants to upload their consciousness into their Toshiba, I won't unplug the power cord. I myself wouldn't mind an anti-aging vaccine or another 100 years.

I'm not against the futurists. But I think it might serve the futurist movement well if they did a better job acknowledging how life isn't all that great now, and that their beloved technologies haven't always improved it. They ought to say upfront that, in addition to researching mind-blowing technologies, we should also vigorously address the many problems people face today. And they should probably be less cocky and more cautious, and their government regulators should be substantial and scrupulous.

And I suppose I wish there was a well articulated and well packaged modern-day movement (that has nothing to do with these futurists) that outlines and calls for a mastering of the art of how to live.

I respect these innovators and I do believe they mean well. But I'm skeptical that the future is our best future. I believe we'd learn more about how to live well, not from the mind-bending visions of futurists, but from the examples of our ancestors. We need tighter communities, fewer screens, healthier foods, more nature, more fulfilling work, more physical activity, and more equality. No app will provide these things. I believe we would be more likely to find inspiration for what makes our lives most livable, not 20 years in the future, but 20,000 years into the past.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A trip to the Alps



A few weeks ago, I found myself near the town of Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. The following is my account of a two-day solo hike. 

Day 1: Berchtesgaden to Stahlhaus

I struck out at 10:30 a.m. for Stahlhaus, one of several sleeping huts for hikers in Berchtesgaden National Park. Berchtesgaden is in southeast Germany on the Austrian border. Designated as a national park in 1978, it’s 81 square miles and home to Kehlsteinhaus, or the “Eagle’s Nest,” a Third Reich building once used as a getaway for Hitler and Nazi top brass, but which now solely functions as a top-of-a-hill beer garden for tourists.  

I began my hike in a European heatwave. The temperature was around 38°C (100°F), so I generously applied sunscreen and glugged water. At the Berchtesgaden tourist center, where I picked up a map, a whole bunch of Chinese people got off a bus and crowded around the bathroom entrances. 

I wouldn’t see any of the Chinese tourists on the hiker/cyclist trail. Apart from a few guys speaking a Slavic language, I seemed like the only foreigner, and my American nationality, to everyone I’d meet in the hills, would be a novelty. 

The first thing I noticed about the German hikers was just how steady they were. Normally I cruise past middle-age women on a trail, but out here if I took a moment to snap a photo or eat a protein bar, I’d soon be overtaken by those whom I’d just overtaken. There are lots of really good looking and in-shape Germans, but many of these hikers didn’t look like they were in amazing shape or anything. There are plenty of lumpy, soft-bellied Germans, yet here they were, gliding up the steep trail with little difficulty. I’ve also noticed plenty of German men with sizable pot bellies (probably from too much sausage and beer), but the rest of their bodies seem hale and hearty, and I’d see plenty of them in the mountains, too. If there is such a thing as a healthy obesity, this is it.  

I arrived at the Stahlhaus shelter at 3 p.m. I’d planned to climb a mountain peak, but that would mean I’d miss the three-course dinner meal in the beer garden, so I sat on a bench and did a sketch of the mountains. I tried to write some thoughts down in my journal but my mind, because of the heat, was mush and my memories were melting.  



I was, though, quite impressed with the shelter. These German huts aren’t like AT shelters, where you get three walls and lots of mice. The Stahlhaus was well-constructed, offering three-course dinners, a breakfast, showers, and electricity. Camping is prohibited in the park, so if you want to do an overnight hike, you have to rely on these shelters, which cost $27/night. Breakfast, dinner, and my rented cotton sleeping bag liner rental was another $40. That’s $65 for a night of camping! Some people spend five days hiking out here, where nature is definitely not free. 

When I arrived, I was surprised to see that the beds were sandwiched together shoulder to shoulder. Four Slavic men were whispering loudly on my bunk level. Two middle-aged German woman came in and took their clothes and bras off in front of us to change into their sleepwear.  

I nodded off to sleep quickly, but the Slavic men snored horribly, waking me after an hour. They were on the far side of the bunk, but I found the volume intolerable, and I wondered how they weren’t waking up one another. It was a symphony of snores. (An awful symphony!) There were grizzly growls and grunts. Sniffles and snorts. Whimpers and wheezes. I found it uncivilized, and I thought that if someone knows that they snore that bad, then they ought to stay at home and leave the rest of us unafflicted. But I too was committing remorseless sins in my corner of the bunk, softly farting into the fabric of my rented cotton sleeping bag liner. 

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  • Expecting fathers can expect a 34% decrease in testosterone levels when the baby comes. This has me concerned for all the obvious reasons. Will I lose my hair, my muscles, my, umm, drive? Will I eventually get my testosterone levels back? I suppose I don’t want to become what I fear becoming: another unambitious, overweight, and sedated man. I don’t want to lose what I most like about myself. Statistics and hormone levels seem so scientific and therefore inescapable. Would this happen in a tribal setting, where parenting duties are a bit more spread out? Is the testosterone drop typical to men in small, atomized nuclear families in industrialized countries, where the father takes on 50 percent of care-taking duties? Is this an example of how my culture may affect and alter me on a profound (hormonal) level? It should also be said that, as the article states, new fathers also see boosts in loving and bonding hormones, such as dopamine and oxytocin. I suppose I do like the idea of experiencing the world with a new perspective (and body to some degree). (Hell, I’d try out being a woman for a week if such a thing were possible.) There are many lives to live in one life, and there is indeed a part of me that welcomes a new one for a time. Plus, I suppose I was heartened to see so many fit older German men on this trip--something I don’t really see in America. [1] A few days later, on a train, I sat across from a man who must have been in his mid sixties and who was probably capable of kicking my ass. The men here, at least in this corner of Germany, age remarkably better than men in my home countries of the U.S. and U.K. Perhaps physical activity, and hikes like these, are part of the solution, and perhaps statistics and studies can, to a degree, be defied. [2]     
  • I developed an idea for a children’s book about a little tree growing up. 
  • Home sapiens, as a species, suffer from amnesia. A giraffe of today lives pretty much the same life as a giraffe of a million years ago, and therefore the giraffe would have little use for a generations-long memory. But we as Homo sapiens, in our 200,000 years, have lived such varied existences, from hunter-gatherers to retail store clothes-folders. Yet we have no real memory for our past lives as hunter-gatherer, farmer-herders, or warrior-craftsmen. No real memory beyond two generations of relatives. No real memory for living in the wild, living according to seasons, looking up at the stars. We've forgotten so much. You might consider our collective unconscious, or our "ghost psyches," as sufficient substitutes for ancient memories, but I think it would do us a world of good to remember well beyond our individual lives. 
  • German strangers look at you longer. It’s not quite a stare; it’s more a gaze. They hold their eyes on you for an extra second or two. A Brit might consider this rude, but I don’t mind. The German gaze contains a mix of curiosity, indifference, and sometimes a little bit of warmth. 
  • This paragraph is not going to help me if I’m ever a suspected of a homicide, but I’d say that several times a week I impulsively and mentally rehearse acts of violence. It often occurs when I’m walking down a vaguely unfriendly city street that gets my stress levels to increase. I’ll imagine a man or a group of teenage boys attacking me or my partner, and I’ll dispatch them with artful moves or just a burst of bloody head-butting animal rage. I should clarify that I never fantasize about striking someone without good reason. And I should say that I’ve never actually been in a fight, and I’m happy to go the rest of my life without getting into one. Yet, during these rehearsals, there’s a part of me that is relishing the sensations of mentally delivering a savage beat down to someone. I consider these “rehearsals of violence.” They mentally prepare me for unlikely events. It keeps me on my guard. It’s not very different than when I imagine ground balls hit my way, which are supposed to help me be a better short stop on my softball team. I’m pretty sure this is all perfectly normal, maybe more so for a man. These things just go unstated.  




Stahlhaus

Stahlhaus


Day 2: Stahlhaus to St. Bartholomew's haus

“German sounds, how do you say, harsh?” asked Michael (pronounced Mick-A-ell). 

I told Michael that I thought spoken German, to my ear, sounds beautiful, and that Americans only think it sounds harsh because our exposure to the German tongue comes mostly from WWII movies, where steely-jawed Germans speak their language with an authoritarian bark.  

When I told him I was from New York, Michael told me he’d went on a tour of the American West Coast, where he visited lots of parks, but that he saw very few people hiking the trails. 

“American are very….” said Michael, searching for a word. 

I made a wide parenthetical gesture with my hands around my belly to communicate “fat.” 

“Not very active,” he said. 

I only had a cartoon map of the mountains with me, so I’d asked Michael for navigational advice. He took a suspicious look at my pack and map and worn-out hiking shoes, and asked me where I was headed for the day. I told him I was going to hike the circumference of Lake Kรถnigsee and arrive back in town by tonight (which looked manageable on my cartoon map, but was perhaps a bit too ambitious). 

Michael let loose a horrified and disgusted, “Nooooooa!”

I thought quietly, “yes.”

It was a bit too ambitious, but I was feeling ambitious. I had glorious sunny weather with no chance of rain in the forecast. I had a super light pack (that was lacking warm clothes and basically everything except a half a day’s worth of snacks), but it was super light and therefore wouldn’t slow me down. And I had a full and expendable German pot belly that I wanted to burn off. And I felt invigorated and up for an overly ambitious challenge.

Michael asked me if I had a head torch. I said no. He involuntarily shook his head, swallowed his disgust, and proceeded to help me out with my route planning as well as he could. 

At these elevations, I’d have to walk through a number of ice fields. These were fields of hard-packed snow along mountainsides. If I slipped, I could slide all the way down into a cluster of coccyx-bashing boulders, so I took my time and grabbed two pointy rocks, which I thought I might use as ice picks should I slip and slide feet-first down the mountainside. I crossed paths with two German women wearing fashionable hiking garb and carrying trekking poles. They didn’t bother to slow their gait over the ice fields, and I felt, with a stone in each hand like some uncouth and barbaric caveman. Later, in the woods, I’d break off a pair of branches from a fallen tree, which I’d use as makeshift trekking poles. In just 24 hours, I felt like I was hurdling back into a different time, and it felt fantastic.   

As I walked downhill into alpine woods, it reminded me of everything that Scottish forests are missing. There were insects everywhere. Butterflies fluttered in front of my advancing feet. The forests, mixed with pine and broad-leaf trees, were alive with birdsong. Look closely and there are probably lines of ants marching perpendicularly across the trail. The alpine meadows were a healthy green with pink and blue and yellow flowers. A chamois (a tawny mountain goat-antelope hybrid) heard my footsteps, hid in a tangle of the forest understory, and, when I passed it, sprinted down the rocky slope at a speed that would have been life-ending if it had tripped. This was a forest alive and well and reasonably ecologically whole (though Germany still lacks the presence of brown bears). 

The path was well posted with signs advertising the next mountaintop and sleeping hut. I took note of how accurate the time indicators were. If the sign said it would take four hours to get to the next destination, it would take me four hours. If I took a fifteen minute break, it would take me four hours and fifteen minutes. Trails that had a blue dot meant they were easy. Red meant difficult. Black meant challenging. I thought this was all worth noting because in the U.S., if you were to pick up a trail brochure at your local state park, “challenging trails” are designated that way if they’re merely over an hour on a rocky uphill path. Here, a challenging trail might require ice picks, crampons, and a helmet. And it’s actually challenging. In Allegheny State Park, an uphill two-hour hike, might be accomplished in 45 minutes by someone fit.  

I thought about my nighttime sins, and I wondered if anyone has ever been killed due to a fart. I’m guessing it’s happened at some point. Maybe, in an earlier civilization, you’re marching with a prisoner or slave or someone you hate, and they let out a defiant boiled cabbage fart. When it comes to being angered by a fart, the smell, I think, is secondary to the impertinence of the emission. Sometimes a fart is emitted, not as a consequence of natural body rhythms (in which case it's mostly forgivable), but to purposefully annoy or rebel or defy, and that’s when I think someone has probably been clobbered over the head with a heavy club. If it’s hot and humid, and the smell is prolonged and amplified, that’s all the more reason for an execution. I’m sure it’s happened in Florida. 

The fart that most riled me was released on a winter’s day in Coldfoot, Alaska, in my dorm room, which was small and very warm. I was playing Scrabble with a male friend and a female coworker. My friend let out something silent and toxic and didn’t claim ownership of it, leaving the girl to possibly imagine that it was me. I was revolted by the smell, but more by the thoughtlessness (or purposeful mischievousness) of his emission, for I suspected that the expulsion was more voluntary than involuntary. In a formal setting, in a room with three people, it’s impolite to leave ownership unclaimed. I kept my mouth shut, thinking that I ought not embarrass him, while leaving, in the air, the humiliating possibility that she’d attribute the unclaimed smell to me. I asked him after she’d left the room, and his mischievous grin confirmed everything. I never found out to whom she’d attributed the sin. 

Back on the trail, I walked past a thin middle-age man named Christian, also a solo traveler, who enthusiastically initiated conversation and who helped provide more advice. “Are you telling me a joke?” he asked when I told him where I planned to hike by the end of the day. “Do you have a torch?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. 

The German language is not harsh, and Germans are not all preoccupied with  discipline and efficiency. That’s how most Americans think of them. Oftentimes Germans and their trains are late. And the people are warm, convivial, and cheery. They're sensual: they love to eat and drink and be out in nature. On my three trips to Germany, I’ve taken note of the fact that I get smiled at here by women far more than usual. It’s a twinkly smile that opens up from their initial curious gaze. I might call it flirtatious. Amorous, even. Is there something about me that is appealing to German women? I never get this look in the U.K. I never got this look in Central America. Almost never in the U.S. For a happily taken man, there’s nothing to be done with such a smile, but it nevertheless brightens my day.  

I’d hiked from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., arriving at St. Bartholomew's haus just before dark. On my map, I saw a squiggly black line (black denotes a challenging trail) that would lead me back to civilization, but it was too dark and clearly too dangerous, and this section alone was another 3.5 hours, and I knew from experience to trust the time estimates, and that 3.5 hours meant 3.5 hours. 

The church grounds were empty, and I planned on sleeping on a bench outside for the night and catching a cheap ferry back to town the next morning. I found a couple of hikers in their mid-twenties in the same predicament, and they warned me that, if I was caught camping in the park (with or without a tent), I’d be fined $1,000. A pair of unhelpful rangers showed up in a boat, with flashlights and binoculars, searching for would-be campers, and they said we had to either continue walking or call for an emergency rescue boat to pick us up.

This seemed crazy! It was perfectly legal to risk death on a steep mountain trail in the middle of the night, but it was a $1,000 fine if I slept in the woods or on a park bench. 

The young man called emergency services for a boat ride without determining how much it would cost (we heard $280 from the ranger), and I was left with the options of illegally (and probably successfully) sleeping in the woods, or shamefully taking the emergency boat ride and splitting the outrageous bill with the couple. 

“I should have never called them,” the young man said, reflecting on all the money he’d have to dish out for a five-minute boat ride. 

They were young and kind and I’d developed a bond with them when we discussed why we shouldn’t embark on a late-night death climb. I wanted to selfishly abandon them so I could keep my money and figure things out on my own in my own thrifty way, but I thought there was something wrong about leaving a younger and more cash-strapped couple, with whom I’d felt a sense of fraternity, with the whole bill. 

An hour later, the boat arrived, shining bright lights onto the shore that made me turn my face away. The whole situation was absurd. There was a rescue boat here where none of us truly needed rescuing. I felt weirdly compelled to pay for something I certainly didn’t want or have to pay for. The couple climbed the ramp and entered the boat, negotiating the rescue price down from $550 to $280. I could have turned away and had a memorable night out in the woods, but out of a sense of what was right, I hopped on, and, with great grief, paid a third of the ticket home.  

Thoughts and Reflections from the Day

  • I had an idea for a memoir, written unlike any other, that comprehensively collects all thoughts, flowing from one to the other, sort of like those of Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. But actually comprehensible. I won’t do it. I like to keep good portions of my life private. And most of my thoughts are mundane and nonsensical. But I think someone ought to undertake the project because there’s a need for such a book. I don’t think any art form has really ever captured how meandering and mundane and amazing the flow of human thought is. In memoirs, or blog entries like these, we only get a carefully curated selection. We don’t get the sad memories, the rehearsals of physical violence, the humiliations, the grand dreams, the amazingly random stream of unconsciousness, the nonsense. I can’t think of one book or movie that’s close to capturing this. Montaigne? Joyce? Maybe, but even with them there’s plenty of careful curating and narrating.       
  • I’ve never seen a solo traveler from China. I’ve seen plenty in large groups in European cities and American national parks. But never an independent man or woman. Group travel (especially when you’re crammed in a bus with members of your own homogeneous country) seems like a pretty lousy way to travel. They’re not trying to talk in English. They’re not engaging in a personal way with Americans or Germans. I suppose they’re at least soaking in some views and making cultural observations, but it seems like an impoverished form of travel. (The Chinese, by the way, are now visiting more international countries than any other nation.)
  • ”You’re scaring me,” is a good way to successfully deter an overzealous suitor. 



Dangerous-seeming ice fields










[1] To my surprise, there are actually plenty of obese Germans. About 24 percent of the adult population.  



[2] It may not matter if there is a 1/3 drop in testosterone levels since there is a wide range of what’s considered normal (about 300 to 1,000 nanograms per deciliter of blood). Apparently there’s little benefit to having high testosterone within this range; all that matters is that you stay within it.