Saturday, December 21, 2019

Movie Review: "Marriage Story"

Is there a psychological term for when critics band together to fawn over perfectly forgettable and mediocre movies? Delusional groupthink? Misplaced acclaim? Self deception to ward off disappointment? The latest film to benefit from a phenomenon along these lines is Marriage Story, which received a 95 percent positive critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and which will probably grab a bunch of Oscar nominations. Why all the acclaim? Perhaps it was the combination of a darling indie director (Noah Baumbach), a promising cast (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a heartbreaking trailer, a this-is-going-to-win-the-Oscar movie poster, and a classic-in-waiting title (Marriage Story) that made it impossible for critics to admit that Marriage Story failed to live up to all of our expectations.

I have a special aversion for movies set in NYC/LA (there are enough of them already!) and that are about well-to-do actors and filmmakers (enough of those, too), so you could say I was being rubbed the wrong way right off the bat. It didn’t help that the characters were also whiny, self absorbed, and unlikable. And let’s not confuse dysfunctional characters who ragefully yell at each other with good drama or dialogue. The acting was just weirdly bad on all fronts. It was as if I was watching a cast of actors “acting,” which is something I don’t expect from a reputable cast and director. But are they even that reputable? I liked Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. The Life Aquatic (which he co-wrote) is one of my favorites. But from what I gather from his filmography (and I should admit I haven’t seen everything), he seems seriously over-admired. The same goes with Adam Driver, who overacted throughout Marriage Story, and who I think gets coveted roles mostly for his unusual face and voice (the same way Benedict Cumberbatch gets roles for his interesting face and name). In the past ten years, Driver has managed to get cast in about 25 films plus a popular HBO series, and I’m just not sure why. What are his memorable performances? What are his iconic movie moments? What has he done to have admired directors (Spike Lee, Spielberg, Jarmusch, J.J. Abrams, Scorsese) cast him in roles that young actors would die for? I just wasn’t buying his relationship with Scarlett’s character, and his overacting in the early Monopoly scene was overlooked in the editing room.

[As an aside, I want to say that “who’s cast in this or that movie” is almost always immaterial to me. The only actor who will make me go out of my way to watch a movie, regardless of what the movie is about, is Daniel Day Lewis. (Directors are a different thing: I’d probably set out to see almost anything that P.T. Anderson, Tarantino, James Cameron, the Coen’s, Kelly Reichardt, or Alfonso Cuarón makes.) The high quality of acting in TV series like Game of Thrones, Easy, and High Maintenance (all of which are dominated by unknown actors) suggests to me that there is no shortage of top-notch talent out there, but that these talented actors can’t get a footing because actors like Driver, for reasons I can’t comprehend, become the darling of Hollywood where he soaks up all the good roles.]

I shouldn’t conclude without saying something positive about the film. I thought the movie succeeded in showing just how wrenching and expensive modern-day divorce is, and how it brings out the worst in everyone. That’s an important story to tell, but it doesn’t feel like a universal story (and Marriage Story is marketed as a movie that will have universal relevance), when it’s about characters who can afford to leap from LA to NYC willy nilly, who randomly win MacArthur Grants, and who prance around in public singing songs as if life was a musical.

Lastly, I didn’t despise the movie. I just can’t keep quiet when critics fawn over mediocrity.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Movie Review: "The Irishman"

I’m okay calling The Irishman a good movie. I won’t roll my eyes if it gets an Oscar nomination. I’m just not sure why the filmmakers went through the trouble of turning the Frank Sheeran-Jimmy Hoffa story into a $159 million, 3.5 hour film that underwent various postponements and that took pains to lure Joe Pesci out of retirement. And for what? The film works as a well-crafted docudrama — a history (and even that’s being challenged) — but there’s not much of a story to it, and when I say “story,” I’m talking about the things that compel us, rivet us, transform, enlighten, and enrich us when we watch a movie. Or that just make us feel. I'm not sure I felt anything. Rather, I saw things. I saw a series of characters who, in the 3.5-hour runtime, didn’t change in any substantial way. I saw a random series of cold-blooded murders of side characters who I could hardly keep track of. (Why Scorsese decided to dramatically document the date of their deaths with text boxes is unclear to me.) I saw a bunch of characters driven almost entirely by their quest for money and power, which are driving forces that make for dull storytelling. I saw a bunch of pointless cameos (Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale) for roles that could have been suitably filled by some newcomer who'd love to be in a Scorsese film. I didn’t see any pathos or emotional character arcs. I’m not sure what the movie had to say, or if it even tried to say anything. The fact that this story is arguably historically insignificant doesn't help things.

The Irishman could have worked as an enlightening second-half-of-the-twentieth-century mafia movie (in which we interestingly get to see how Mafia 2.0 interacts with government, how they carry out assassinations, how their business interests have evolved with a changing world, not to mention the always-fun tough guy codes, the fun subtle tough guy threats, and the fun tough guy beating a grocer nearly to death for nudging his daughter), but Scorsese already did that with Goodfellas and Casino. I wasn’t a fan of Hugo or Silence, but at least Scorsese was trying something different. The Irishman is warmed leftovers that took years and a lot of money to make.

I think of all the movies that could have been, and need to be, made with a $159 million budget. Why not tell the story of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid? Why not adapt the Native Alaskan Two Old Ladies story into a movie? The English Kinder Scout mass trespass? The Monkey Wrench Gang? A biopic of Thoreau? I love all the old mob movies as much as the next guy, but I think they should go the way of the Western, and go away.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Review: "Sabrina"

Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is the most 2019 book you could possibly read. It's about conspiracy theory culture, suburban malaise, and how the truth has become something to be reshaped and marketed for consumption. It's cynical about our country, but there's a whiff of optimism in how the characters operate, person-to-person. Though atomized, fragmented, and mostly connected by screens and usernames, you can sense that these characters are dying to connect, help, and be helped. This was my first graphic novel and I couldn't put it down.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Book review: The Problem with Everything

Meghan Daum is one of my favorite memoir writers and her latest, The Problem with Everything, is very good. It’s a memoir/manifesto/cultural critique of our modern culture wars, in which she defiantly flicks away creeping ideological groupthink and casts a critical eye on 21st Century moral panics, on what she calls “fourth wave feminism,” and on how younger generations have seemingly abandoned toughness as a character quality.

For me, there’s nothing like reading the thoughts of a smart person. It almost doesn’t matter what her subjects are. I could read a smart person's thoughts endlessly. But I suppose this book was especially satisfying for the fact that her thoughts are close to my own. People of privileged demographics often feel hobbled from saying clear and unspoken truths, and, as a straight white dude, I’ve (perhaps sensibly) chosen to keep my head down and mouth shut. Call that cowardly, but it’s probably far better and more effective if criticism comes from individuals within their own groups. And that’s why an author like Daum (a feminist criticizing the foibles and fallacies of Facebook feminism) is so refreshing: It’s like, “Ahh, thank god, someone finally said it!” If I have any criticism of the book, it's that I wish she didn't shy away from venturing into issues of race, which is perhaps an even harder subject to talk about, and one that's sorely missed here. A great companion piece to this (and one more reliant on data) is Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of America, which criticizes the culture of safetyism, virtue-signaling, and righteous victimhood in America.

“But something was different back then. I shared a planet with those elders. We occupied the same universe. We breathed the same air. I had the great gift of being able to look up to my elders because it was possible to be like them. We may have been of different generations, with different problems and preoccupations and ideas about what constituted paying a lot of rent, but we still all grew up holding books in our hands. We called our friends from pay phones and negotiated sexual situations without technological assistance and registered opinions without being smacked down on social media moments later. We made mistakes in private and, in turn, respected the privacy of others in their mistakes. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my generation and those that are coming up behind us. Young people don’t want to be us because they’re not even the same species as us. Even if they did want to be us, the proposition would be absurd, like a human trying to emulate an orangutan. The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. In this epoch, there are no pay phones for calling friends at the spur of the moment. The contact highs from walking down the street have been replaced by dopamine hits from Instagram likes. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?”

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.

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 infantilization of an age group who might do better to adapt to trying circumstances than we may think.)

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 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 and neoliberal governing policies 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
Black and Blue

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
Zombieland 2
The Lighthouse
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. 

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.  



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 Königsee 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.