Σ 529 km
It is hard to say when it began, because the stress and loneliness of the PhD blended into my post-PhD feelings, but it’s quite fair to say that I have been feeling consistently low at least since I learned that I would have to leave my old home in North York in March.
One big contributor is surely the feeling of anticlimax after the dissertation was released. This wasn’t some obscure academic tract about an issue of specialist interest, but a very current-day analysis of humanity’s most pressing problem. I was expecting, or at least hoping for, debate and pushback from people in the activist and policy communities. So far, the most substantial response to what I wrote has been a half-hour discussion with my brother Mica and his wife Leigh when they were visiting Toronto. In the dissertation I express my worry that — even though their aspiration and plan is to change the world — activists get caught up in routine behaviours like marches which occupy their time and effort but do little to change minds or policy. The total non-response to my research so far is a minor bit of additional evidence that activists aren’t generally too compelled by external analyses of their efficacy.
Another dimension is no doubt simple isolation. The layers have been stacking for me in that area: it’s harder to make and keep friends as an adult, it’s harder when you’re no longer a student, and it has become harder as people have pulled their social attention inward to a small group during the pandemic. Getting anybody to attend any sort of event has become substantially harder, and as corollaries the events that do happen have less attendance and energy and there are fewer events.
Another item for this decidedly non-comprehensive list is my sense that most of the people who I know (or, at least, peers and younger people — the dynamics of the affluent and established are different) are not doing well. People seem stymied in achieving the sort of adult lives they want, and especially in finding any sort of work which is psychologically and materially rewarding. It feels like to a large extent our parents got rich and retired, but most of us have never been able to move up into the positions they held at our stage of life. As with housing, there is a feeling that the older and best-off parts of the population have grabbed everything and are keeping it for themselves. This feeling becomes especially embittering when paired with the knowledge that they are actively choosing to hand over a ruined planet to their descendants every time they keep electing leaders who keep the future-wrecking fossil fuel industry going.
It is hard to escape the feeling that I have spent the last 20+ years building up for what I thought would be an intense period of intellectual effort, civilizational re-consideration, and mass political re-organization… and have found myself instead in an epoch where smaller-scale but acute disruptions have monopolized public attention to the point where we seem to be paying even less attention to the big trends than we were 10-15 years ago. It’s very hard to feel optimistic about the future, and it is simultaneously profoundly alienating when society at large is choosing to ignore the existential seriousness of the crisis which we are in. Living among people who are likely to be remembered as history’s greatest wreckers (on the optimistic assumption that anyone will be around with luxuries like paper and literacy to write the history of the present) carries with it feelings of rage and hatred against everything around me: the cars pumping out their fumes in a million lines idling behind red lights, the kaleidoscopic variety in our supermarkets at the same time as we are smashing the Earth’s biodiversity and capacity to support us, the elections that still turn on trivialities even though the consequences of our choices are as serious as death…
Feeling that our civilization is such a disaster is utterly isolating, since our fellow human beings cannot help taking that personally as a criticism and rejection of their own lives and priorities. Meanwhile, it’s impossible to have any confidence in the future. Over the last 20+ years, humanity has shown that we are totally capable of knowing the consequences of our actions and the stakes being played for and still choosing to ruin the world which we inherited. As much as I sincerely delight in the possibilities and experiences of life, I don’t know how to avoid the feeling of being a witness during the time of humanity’s downfall.
A news story today discusses how life expectancy for BC men has fallen slightly to about 80.
Reading that felt like an acute reminder that my 40th birthday in November is a probable halfway point for my life, though of course the population statistic and any individual’s experience can be quite different.
Thinking ahead to the event makes me wish I still had a large and active group of friends to bring together, an ongoing history of recent parties, or a place suitable for such a function. As it is, with friends so spread out and largely dormant, it would probably be depressing to try for a large gathering and end up with a small one and a lot of ‘regret that I cannot attend’ messages.
I have been getting struck sometimes recently with the pain of knowing some memory is forever lost and unrecoverable. Seeing Vancouver and family albums there was a reminder that, even for those with privileged lives, the past and the kind of events that characterized it become inaccessible, both because relationships and the wide world change progressively and irreversibly.
I don’t know what I want to do for the event, but I am thinking with new seriousness about it now that it feels more like a moment to take stock, celebrate and mourn what has happened so far, and try to apply any wisdom learned for the future. I wonder if anyone has ever marked their 40th with a half funeral or installation 1 of 2 of their memorial service?
The period since at least July 22nd has been so consistently busy that I haven’t had time to pause and think any of it through.
The one big Toronto achievement is that now, for the first time since I came to the city in 2011, I am on the lease for a place to live. It’s expensive (adding to the urgency of the job hunt) but I have protected long-term legal status there. After having to move probably 40 or more times during the PhD, it will be a comfort to have a place I can more fully rely upon.
Sasha and I woke early at our B&B in Yellowknife and after a simple breakfast began our drive south. Tragically, we were never invited to meet the proprietors’ 24-year-old parrot Cosmo (possibly “Gosmo”) McBeaky, which I heard when booking from Toronto and had been psyched to meet north of 60°.
In Yellowknife and during the NWT and northernmost Alberta parts of the trip, the air quality was at 11 in the Apple weather app, whereas I never saw worse than 7 in Toronto. We drove past Sasha and Mica’s former school in Edzo, and then down toward the route through High Level which we had chosen to avoid wildfires near the Liard highway.
For most of the drive, we swapped between our respective Spotify libraries (mine only in the minority of spots with cell coverage, because there is no space on my phone for downloads) and sang along to the many songs we both know. We also listened to Serkis’ reading of The Hobbit from the battle against Smaug in Esgaroth to the very cusp of the eucatastrophe in the Battle of Five armies before pausing in High Table to share a large Mediterranean pizza.
We added another 300 km to our earlier 700 and got to Grimshaw as a severe thunderstorm was starting. We opted not to camp due to the expected bad weather and checked into the last available room in a hotel full of fire-fighting teams and lost power ten minutes later when Sasha was in the pool and I was doing an intense 25 minutes on the elliptical machine (my first time since the U of T gyms closed for COVID). I feel like I’m fitter than I remember being then, but part of it was surely desire to move my legs after a bus and three flights followed by the three hour Oppenheimer screening we attended last night, plus today’s driving.
I saw more ravens in a day than I think I ever have, and we got a close look at twenty or so bison of all sizes standing around and atop the road. They have truly impressive bulk and presence, and seemed utterly unperturbed by us, though willing to slowly shift off the road while we watched them and took some photos.
We are monitoring wildfire locations and road closures, but presently planning to drive into BC via Jasper and to camp tomorrow night if we can find a good spot and decent weather. To leave space in the Mazda for Sasha’s move I packed as light as possible, omitting a fly for my tent and all my rainy weather clothes (indeed, I brought just three shirts, my two intact-ish pairs of cargo trousers, and fresh daily socks for a five day trip).
I am hugely grateful to my parents and especially my mother for making the trip possible by helping me secure an apartment as guarantors. The chance to spend one-on-one time with Sasha is a true blessing, and the trip will doubtless be a source of memories and stories between us for life.
After defending my dissertation in December and collecting my diploma in March, I have been watching my U of T benefits gets deactivated one by one. They cut off my dental insurance between when I defended and when I graduated. My campus wifi access was withdrawn several months ago. As of July, my T-card no longer provided access to Robarts or Gerstein libraries.
I feel it would be a shame to live in a city with a library system like U of T’s and be unable to access it. Luckily, as an alumnus I can get a borrower card for $70 per year. It comes with the very annoying restrictions of no campus wifi use, and no off-campus access to electronic databases — but it does provide access to all U of T libraries, allows you to withdraw fifty (50!) books, and allows access to services like research consultations. I now officially have permission to use U of T’s vast library resources to research anything of personal interest or importance. It’s also a great place to hide from summer heat if you don’t have AC at home.
Right now, I have three reasons to wear a mask:
First, getting COVID would be a nightmare while I am desperately seeking housing, and while I am in a place with no kitchen or bathroom to myself if I need to isolate. I would rapidly go crazy if fully confined to my hot, muggy, awkward temporary bedroom.
Second, the wildfire smoke ebbs between visibly hazy and not very perceptible, but the PM2.5 and other components are awful for your lungs whether you can perceive them or not.
Third, I have vulnerable relatives with pre-existing conditions which could make COVID very serious for them.
I have been finding it rather hard to rest and focus. My temporary accomodation doesn’t so much feel like a home as like a temporary platform from which to urgently seek housing.
I know the long-standing expectation going back decades is that Toronto and Vancouver have challenging housing markets, but things feel like they have been pushed to a higher level. Increasingly for people around me, housing has become the single most determinative factor in their lives, including in whether they have the stability to pursue sounder finances through job progression or education. The way the housing market is operating is strangling the dreams of young people, while leaving them uncertain about whether they can have any kind of desirable future at all.
Life now chiefly consists of three tasks:
- Finding somewhere permanent to live as soon as possible, but ideally by August 1st and by necessity by August 28th when non-students must leave the co-op
- Finding any employment to help defer the costs of living
- Finding long-term employment in the fight against climate change, perhaps most plausibly in the clean energy sector
I don’t think life has ever been so open-ended and unanchored for me, which is disorienting and worrisome when there are so many problems in the world and among people who I know.
The most sustainable option for housing would be finding a 3 bedroom unit along with two other people and getting on a formal lease. That would finally free me from the uncertainty I had at 410 Markham and 611A Marlee, where I was only safe as a tenant as long as a prior flatmate who the landlords allowed on the lease was there.
Of course, finding two other people and a place all at the same time is quite a coordination problem. I am also open to an affordable 2 bedroom unit with a lease and a suitable flatmate. I also need to consider just taking over a room in an existing place, given how little time I have to search, but that would likely mean being put back in the precarious situation of an off-lease tenant which has made housing into the stress volcano that I live on top of since Pieter Basedow’s worst abuses began in February 2018.
Theoretically I could stretch to finding a cheap place on my own, but (a) every $100 per month matters in terms of retaining a low cost of living and sustaining resources for future troubles and (b) provided they are conscientious and respectful of privacy, I prefer having the unobtrusive company of flatmates to being alone.