Eighties house party

Making a comeback?

The American social critic Kurt Andersen has a thing about the present age being a culture of nostalgia, one that is no longer creating anything new. One of his favourite examples is today’s music, and whenever I read him going on about this I find myself doubting how strong an argument it is. It has an air of “grumpy old man” about it, complaining about all this noisy rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t real music. I mean, I liked, and still like, the music I listened to in high school and university, but I assume kids today have moved on.

This past week saw students moving back in for the start of university in my home town. A house behind me that sold a couple of months ago is apparently going to be party central, filled with a lot of good-looking young people. On Saturday night they were having a house party, and I was sleepily listening to the tunes they had cranked up. After a while I started noticing something, and began making notes on the party playlist. Here’s a stretch of what I heard:

“Hungry Heart” Bruce Springsteen (1980)
“Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)
“Bust a Move” Young MC (1989)
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Tears for Fears (1985)
“Groove Is in the Heart” Deee-lite (1990)
“Freedom” Wham! (1984)

Wow. I have to say this really surprised me. Kids at university were literally playing the same songs thirty years ago. I think the only thing I missed was Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and I might have just nodded off before they got to that. If they’d started up Black Box’s “Ride On Time” I think I may have had to go over and introduce myself.

What gives? Is Andersen right? Don’t today’s young people have their own music to listen to? I’m not complaining, but I don’t think the music I listened to as a young man was anything special. I just like it because it’s what I grew up with. Shouldn’t something have replaced it by now?

Alpha bullshit

While working on an essay-review of some of our most pernicious new ideologies I’ve ended up listening in on what’s known as the “manosphere.” This is basically the male take on relationships today, and while some of it is entertaining, in that podcast-on-while-I’m-making-dinner sort of way, and there’s even some helpful, commonsensical advice on tap, most of it is awfully repetitive and reductive.

Within the manosphere it’s now glibly assumed that there are these creatures known as “alpha males”: special beings who dominate the commanding heights of evolution through their easy reproductive success. The losers are then “betas” who don’t get to breed. (There are other Greek letters as well, but they aren’t as important.) On the other side, women are said to hit a “wall” after peak fertility, with their Sexual Market Value going into steep decline thereafter, to the point where by the age of 40 they have become virtually worthless. Stay away from these painted harpies because all they want is to steal your money and screw alphas behind your back!

Both sexes can be precisely graded on a scale of 1 to 10, as High Value and Low Value mates, their score determined by a mix of biology and Internet algorithms (hey, it’s how Facebook got its start!) whose judgment cannot be questioned because, you know, it’s science.

And so we’ve arrived at a point where it’s now become common to speak as though something like an “alpha male” actually exists and is not just a metaphor. For what it’s worth, my understanding when the word first started being used a while back was that it only referred to not-very-bright jerks who had no friends, couldn’t hold on to a job, and usually had substance abuse problems and/or criminal records. Now they are apparently supermen, and to be celebrated. You may hate these people, in a spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment, but that’s only because you’re inferior.

I’m depressed to see that this crudely reductionist ideology has become something concrete, a mythology and mental space that young people at least are now trapped inside. Just as with the myth of a “meritocracy,” an after-the-fact justification of everyday selfishness and narcissism is now seen as the intellectual underpinning of some kind of immutable law. I don’t think people any more stupid than they’ve ever been, but being steeped in a culture full of such bullshit I’m afraid that they’re becoming more vicious.

Damn COVID

I thought it was over. Or at least that things would be getting better soon. I’ve always been aware of the fact that we’re never getting back to normal, if by “normal” is meant the way things used to be, but I thought we might return to at least an approximation of the status quo ante.

A couple of recent developments have shaken my faith in this a bit. In the first place there’s been an announcement on the status of the annual Friends of the Public Library Book Sale. I’ve posted before on this event (in 2016 and 2019). It’s something I look forward to every year. Of course it was canceled last year due to the pandemic but I thought there was a chance it might be a go now. Where I live we have a very high full-vaccination rate (over 80%) and the sale isn’t until October. But they’ve already said it’s off again.

Understandable. If they were going to hold it they would have to start accepting donations now, and they probably aren’t fully comfortable with that. Plus it’s an event that can only run with a lot of volunteer help and they might have had some trouble on that score too. So I get it. But it’s still quite disappointing and leaves me wondering if it might be in trouble next year as well, or even if it’s going to be viable at all going forward into our “new normal.”

The second bit of news is more upsetting. I’ve always been a bit of a gym rat, and with the gyms being closed for the past eighteen months I’ve been having to manage withdrawal symptoms. Well, the gyms are open now, but with two big caveats.

In the first place, you have to wear a mask. Now I agree this may be for the best. And I accept that it’s possible to work out while wearing a mask, if not a lot of fun. But I don’t want to wear a mask while exercising, and I’m certainly not going to pay to do so. Until the masks come off I’m not going back.

Also, and less understandable, is the fact that the hours have been severely restricted. The gym I was previously a member of was a 24-hour gym, which suited me perfectly, as I am a night owl. Since they’ve reopened their new hours are 5 am to 10 pm on weekdays and only 7 am to 7 pm on weekends. 7 to 7! Is that a joke? And is it the new normal? I’m afraid it may be, as one person on staff who I talked to let it slip that they had no plans to ever going back to being a 24-hour gym. Consternation! Is this the world that COVID-19 made? Damn.

Crushing it

In an earlier post I talked about how I was playing a lot of online chess during the lockdown but that I still wasn’t getting any better. I’m a terrible chess player, and remain so. But every now and then I do have a good game. Here’s the brilliant checkmate I scored against Sven, the 1100 ELO avatar on Chess.com.

A great game by me? No. I have to be honest, Sven played very poorly this time out. Sometimes he does that. But I had no blunders or mistakes and totally dominated. I may have to move up to Nelson someday. But he’s a bully and usually beats me very quickly. I need to get better first.

COVID-19: Final thoughts?

On June 30 2021 I received my second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, thus marking what I hope is, for me at least, a beginning of the end of the pandemic. Maybe I’ll post some more follow-ups, but for now I thought I’d go over some of my earlier posts and offer an initial attempt at a personal retrospective on a remarkable global event.

At no time did I feel any anxiety over COVID-19. This was mainly for two reasons. In the first place, the fatality rate for COVID-19, at least in its initial iterations, was under 1% for those under the age of 65. The majority of deaths in the early days were the result of outbreaks in retirement/nursing homes. At one point the average age of people dying from COVID in B.C. was reported as being 88, which is older than the normal life expectancy in this country by quite a bit. Now obviously I don’t want to diminish any unnecessary deaths but this suggested to me that there was no need for anyone in a low-risk group to panic.

The second reason I didn’t feel anxious was the lack of any personal impact. Within the first year of the pandemic the media were reporting how “everyone” now knew someone who had died of COVID. I didn’t. Even today I don’t know anyone who died of it. I don’t know anyone who even had it. In fact, I only know one person who knows someone who had it. Maybe I was just lucky, but given the number of people I talked to about this I don’t think I was that much of an outlier. So for me, and almost everyone I know, COVID remained something that I read or heard about on the news but that I had absolutely no experience of.

What about the response to COVID? I’ve said before that we were lucky this was such a mild pandemic, as we could learn a lot that might help us deal with the next one. What lessons might we take from what we’ve been going through?

Scientists did their job in coming up with a vaccine on schedule. In the first days of the pandemic all of the experts I heard gave a timeline for how long it would take for a vaccine to be developed and when it would be available that turned out to be accurate. If anything the vaccine might have even arrived slightly ahead of time.

The medical establishment gets mixed marks, mainly for sending so many mixed signals. In Canada there was endless waffling over the status of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Then there was debate over how soon one should get a second dose. Follow the manufacturers’ recommendations? Or would a longer wait actually be better? I still don’t know what the answer is. And what about mixing vaccines? Good, bad, or of no real consequence? It seems to me we might have expected clearer guidance on these matters. Meanwhile, why did it take so long — over a year! — for it to finally be acknowledged that the chances of getting COVID outdoors, aside from attending crowded gatherings like sports events or political rallies, was nearly impossible? Even in the first months of the pandemic I never wore a mask outside, thinking just on the grounds of common sense that it was useless. I wasn’t going to get COVID just by walking past someone. And yet wearing a mask outdoors still seems to be a sort of virtuous fashion statement for many, even in the wee hours of the morning when there’s no one about, as does the annoying habit of running to the other side of a street to avoid passing someone on the sidewalk. This is taking hygiene theater to an extreme, and in a way that sends a confusing message. Are such people saying that they’re infected and that we should avoid them? I don’t think that’s what they mean, but it’s the most logical interpretation for their behaviour.

I wonder how much of this acting out will change in the months to come. In an earlier post I referred to the split between double-maskers and anti-maskers. Apparently there is another group known as ultra-maskers, who are defined as individuals who are going to continue to wear masks, everywhere, for the rest of their lives. This suggests a real mental illness.

I’m not a fan of the government’s handling of things. The poorly timed openings and re-openings were only part of it. The rollout of the vaccine also struck me as chaotic and divisive. Six months ago I even described it as a disaster. Who was an “essential” worker? Somebody delivering for Amazon? I knew home care workers who weren’t considered as being on the front line. A neighbour in his mid-80s couldn’t get a shot while in hospital because he was “only” in for surgery and not in long-term care (he ended up having to stay in the hospital for two months, unvaccinated). “Racialized” groups were at the front of the line for vaccines, but what is a “racialized” group anyway? It sounds like a political or sociological label. How arbitrary were the various age cut-offs? Was there much evidence that you were more at risk at 65 than at 60?

A lot of this made no sense to me. If COVID had been a more deadly pandemic I don’t think people would have responded well to it at all. Then throw in the jumble of pharmacies and vaccine pop-ups whose sporadic supply issues and “first come, first served” model made the whole business of vaccination into a lottery. It’s great that it all worked out well in the end, but when I found out from a friend that most people living in Buffalo, New York had their second shot before I’d even been able to make an appointment for my first, I’ll admit I felt more than a bit of frustration at how we were doing in this country.

The public response was disappointing. A significant percentage of people, though by no means a majority, rejected vaccines entirely. There was initial panic, leading to lots of irrational behaviour. Remember the run on toilet paper? Or how much a box of medical masks cost in March 2020? Meanwhile, I saw little, really no, evidence of people “coming together.” Instead there was ignorance, confusion, anger, and paranoia. I consider myself lucky to have only been yelled at twice in the last eighteen months for getting too close to someone (both times while walking past them in a grocery store aisle, while masked).

The fallout will be enormous. Much greater, I believe, than the political and economic wreckage from the 2008 financial crisis (and that was bad enough). I wrote about all this a year ago and I haven’t seen anything to make me change my mind about what I said then. Basically the pandemic was another case of the rich getting richer and the poor being wiped out. There are two economies. As Warren Buffett recently observed, “many hundreds of thousands or millions of small businesses have been hurt in a terrible way, but most of the big companies have overwhelmingly done fine.” For the past year the stock market boomed and house prices continued to soar while small businesses closed. More inequality and resentment coming up! What could go wrong with that?

Shifting focus a bit, there are two negatively-affected groups in particular that I don’t think have been getting enough attention.

In the first place, the closing down of hospitals for all but emergency procedures has created a scary backlog in things like cancer treatment and any surgery that could (but really, really shouldn’t) be delayed. This is having a huge impact on people’s lives that I’ve been witness to, resulting in a lot of extra suffering that will continue to be felt for years to come. As I said, I was never worried about catching COVID. But I count it a blessing that I didn’t get sick with something else in the last year and a half. I would have been screwed.

As a corollary to this I want to flag a related and equally worrying pandemic development. Doctors stopped seeing people for regular check-ups over the past year, instead getting by with “virtual” consultations (phone calls) that basically only addressed the most urgent situations. I have heard that this may be a new model moving forward, and even one preferred by many people. If so, it will be a disaster, and I say that with no hesitation. Hands-on, physical exams are absolutely necessary to catch a lot of medical problems before they get any worse. To take one example, a PSA test is no substitute at all for a digital rectal exam when it comes to catching prostate cancer early. I can’t count the number of people I’ve known who have had cancers, of all sorts, discovered on routine check-ups. People wanting to switch over to remote doctoring because it’s quick and convenient shouldn’t be under any illusions as to what they’re going to be losing and what the consequences are going to be.

The second affected group are schoolkids and what UNESCO has dubbed the “shadow pandemic” of “education disruption” (you can read more about this in an excellent article in the July 2021 issue of Maclean’s by Sarmishta Subramanian). I didn’t think the educational system was ready to switch to online learning, and it wasn’t. From what I’ve seen just over the course of the last couple of months, it never really got up to speed. Top students, those most, privileged, disciplined and motivated, have managed. They usually do, and there’s no need to worry about them. But for everyone else (which is to say, the overwhelming majority of students) it’s been nearly two years down the drain. I don’t blame the teachers. I met some new teachers who had just graduated before COVID struck and I can’t imagine how at sea they felt being thrust into such a situation. But based on the online classes I saw, and the students I spoke to, “school” this past year was a total waste.

In sum, if we can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as a test I don’t think we did very well. What’s worse, I have little faith that we’ll do any better when the next pandemic strikes. And it will.

The kids aren’t alright (but their grandparents are worse)

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recently posted some thoughts on “young people today” that has been getting a lot of play. Here’s the pull quote:

In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude; an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.

I find it obscene.

I think this is well observed and very nicely expressed, but I’m put off a bit by Adichie attributing this frame of mind to young people. It’s a targeting I hear a lot and I think it’s unfair, even a bit of a smear. Are young people the only ones behaving like this and having these sorts of opinions? Some of them are. And I do put a lot of the blame on social media, which is having a terrible effect we haven’t begun to plumb the depths of yet. But are kids the worst offenders?

Not in my opinion. If we’re playing the generational blame game I think Adichie would find spending time with some retirees a revelation. In my own experience it’s the much- and justly-maligned Boomers who are even more politically intolerant, rude, bitter, selfish, narrow-minded, entitled, angry, and narcissistic. To make the easiest point, in the U.S. it was older voters who elected Trump. I find most (but not all) young people to be pretty decent. I find most (but not all) old people (a group I’m having to include myself in more and more) to be insufferable.

The golden calf

New type of tree, wearing a towel.

I made a comment a while back where I mentioned Jamie Dornan’s calves. Here’s a picture of what I was referring to.

Jamie Dornan is a model/actor/musician whose best known turn was playing the kinky billionaire in the 50 Shades franchise. I haven’t seen any of those movies (or read the books) but thought Dornan was great in The Fall. I even preferred his performance to that of his co-star Gillian Anderson.

Dornan’s a good-looking fellow, and apparently was named “the Golden Torso” by the New York Times. What surprised me the most, however, were the scenes in The Fall where he shows his calves. I mean, they really stand out. I don’t think you can get calves like that from doing anything in the gym. They have to be genetic. And while they’re impressive, they are kind of weird to see on a model.

The high price of living (somewhere)

In recent years there’s been a lot of discussion about the affordability of homes in Canada, and whether we are experiencing a real estate bubble. A lot depends on location, as always when talking about buying a house. But the numbers on the ground where I live are concerning.

In March 2020 the average resale price of a home where I live was $590,176. A year later, March 2021, the price had risen to $744,775. A 26.2% increase in one year, which is a record-setting pace. The average house was appreciating in value over $10,000 a month. That makes for a very fluid marketplace. I was recently informed by a real estate agent that one local home had sold for more than $300,000 over asking. I do not live in Toronto or Vancouver, by the way.

I don’t know if this is a bubble, but it is a run-up that has to stop at some point. I don’t see how such inflation is sustainable. But will there be a collapse, or just a freeze or gentle deflating? And who is buying all these million-dollar homes anyway?

Iconography

I’m a card-carrying Luddite, and by “card” I don’t mean the kind of digital ID you put in a virtual wallet or display on a cell phone. My Luddite status can be established simply by the fact that I watch a lot of DVDs, which remain my preferred way of enjoying movies.

I do hope that DVDs will be with us for years to come, though I’ll admit to having doubts about this. I’ve heard rumours recently that some studios are thinking of abandoning the format entirely. It seems like everything is moving to streaming. But recently I’ve found even my love of DVDs is starting to be undercut by my inability to understand the language of icons. Evidence is here supplied by the “menu” to the DVD I recently watched of the three-part series they made out of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

What do these symbols mean? OK, the first you pressed to play the movie. I got that. The second? I don’t know. And I still didn’t know after I clicked on it. It took me to another page that I couldn’t understand the purpose of. I thought it might be scene selection, but I don’t think that was available anywhere. At least I couldn’t find it. The third button was for accessing the DVD’s special features. But how would you get that from an asterisk? The fourth looks like it’s meant to control sound settings, but actually it’s for languages. Which turned out to be superfluous since there was only one audio track and it was English. The fifth was for subtitles, though the only subtitles available were in English. Still, it did allow you to toggle whether you wanted them on or off (if you couldn’t do that from your remote).

Years ago, or really decades ago now, I remember the despair in some circles that arose when it was revealed that more and more automated services were being designed for people who couldn’t read even the simplest instructions. Meaning that menus were entirely controlled by buttons marked with icons. It now seems that, at least in some cases, we’ve lost written instructions completely, to be replaced by visual prompts and cues that are both unnecessary for overcoming language barriers (this particular DVD has no language options other than English) and confusing.

It’s a brave new world, and I’ve been left behind. Childhood’s end, indeed!

The end of anger

Angry, and not alone.

I’ve read and reviewed a lot of books on (mostly American) politics over the past few years, and one point that keeps coming up is anger. To be sure, anger has long been a key component in politics. It was in 1976 that Howard Beale (in the movie Network) gave his live rant about how people should scream from the windows that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. This famous line would be adopted by Dominic Sandbrook for the title of his political history Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right. So the 1970s seem like as good a place as any to locate when temperatures started to rise.

Gerald F. Seib picks up the story a little later on, tracking the genealogy of anger “from Reagan to Trump” in We Should Have Seen It Coming. He sources the main fount of anger, however, to the Tea Party movement, which launched in 2009 (kicking off with another live rant on television, this time not fictional). The Tea Party, in Seib’s account, “was the first political movement born on social media, and the first to show that anger was the special rocket fuel that could propel such a movement. It would not be the last.”

Before the Tea Party, however, Gavin Esler had described the 1990s as the seedbed of today’s angry politics in his survey of The United State of Anger. A very prescient take on what was coming down the pipe, and one with a precise and correct diagnosis of what was driving it. Remember the Angry White Males? They were much talked about at the time, and never went away.

In books about the Trump phenomenon there has been a lot of talk about anger. Obviously Trump himself is a very angry person, which made him the perfect vehicle for what a large segment of the population was feeling. Alexander Zaitchik’s The Gilded Rage being a good on-the-ground account of what Trump was tapping into.

I find the historical analysis fascinating because it reflects what I’ve been witnessing happening first-hand. There is a lot of anger out there. I can’t recall a time when there’s been so much of it. I sit across from it at restaurants, see it when I go out shopping, and even encounter it when walking in the park. I have sat and been a sounding board far too many times in the past few years for someone venting about their family, their job, or just the world in general. We are living, as Pankaj Mishra puts it, in The Age of Anger (a must-read for these times).

A couple of observations that I’ve made before but that I’ll repeat here.

(1) The anger is not exclusive to white males without a college education, or those “left behind” by the new economy. Far from it. Many of the angriest people I know are wealthy, successful professionals or businesspeople. Not all of them are young. Many are older, and enjoying comfortable retirements. Many are women. Anger also possesses both the political left and right. It is, in short, not limited to any one demographic. In Twilight of Democracy Anne Applebaum makes the same point when describing former friends who have embraced populist politics. They are not losers but an elite. This has not, however, made them immune to anger. Is anger then part of, or connected in some way to the so-called “narcissism epidemic,” a condition where the whole world is not enough to feed our egos? The example of Trump suggests there may be something to this.

(2) The main factors that are pushing our individual and collective needles into the red are, in my opinion, growing economic inequality and social media. With regard to the former, I’ve written before about how the COVID-19 pandemic is only going to make things worse (and people angrier). With regard to the latter, Seib ends his book by interviewing Eric Cantor, a former House Majority Leader who lost his seat to a populist uprising. When Seib asks Cantor what has fed and spread the anger that eventually took him down he answers by pulling out his smartphone. Enough said.

Broader factors contributing to a politics of anger would include the fact that people find politicians and parties increasingly unrepresentative and unresponsive, as well as a more general sense of the world being outside their control and indifferent to their feelings. In any event, if I’m right about the role being played by inequality and technology it’s hard to come up with an optimistic prognosis. Economic inequality is going to get worse, perhaps much worse. Social media is not going to bring us together because it makes money out of triggering rage. Anger will grow, tempting more politicians to ride the tiger. Who can believe this will end well?

Update, July 5, 2021:

Tom Nichols, writing on Twitter, is another commentator who sees anger as the drug of choice not of the down-and-out but of those who are better off: “If you wonder why super-privileged kids or retirees in nice condos are so angry, it’s because it feels *great* to be angry. Otherwise, life becomes about getting a job (if you’re young) or just accepting the twilight of age. Easy heroism is crack to Americans raised on cable.”