Halfway through life

Tomorrow I am turning forty, which feels like the best guess for the halfway point of my life.

In the last couple of years — and especially recent months — I have been feeling incredibly isolated and rejected, as though I have no or hardly any active social relationships.

Perhaps we over-estimate the importance of birthdays around when they are happening. I had been struggling lately to recall what happened on many of mine, so I went back to my paper calendar records for a sense of history:

  • In 2007, I had been in Ottawa for about three months after finishing my M.Phil and moving there for work. For my 24th birthday I had a dinner at the Ceylonta restaurant. I don’t specifically remember who was there, though some digging in electronic archives would probably produce invitation emails and/or a photo or two of the event.
  • In 2008, it was drinks at The Manx pub.
  • In 2009, I visited my family in Vermont and they gave me a birthday dinner before a hike in the snow.
  • In 2010, I travelled back to Ottawa after a Toronto visit.
  • For my 28th (“champagne”) birthday, I got my GRE scores and celebrated getting older with my cousins and some friends.
  • In 2012, I had started at Massey College and was kindly invited for dinner in the residence of John Fraser, head of the college.
  • 2013 was dinner at Big Sushi with a friend, where we sketched out a plot outline for a Massey College film noir which was never made but fun to think about.
  • In 2014, the day began with cold pizza, an environmental decision-making class and a workshop on choosing a supervisory committee. That night, I had a party at my friend Tristan’s co-op house.
  • For my 32nd birthday, I did a 3D printing course at the Toronto Reference Library and had dinner at Banjara with a friend.
  • In 2016, it was lunch at Massey and dinner with the same friend, before a call with my brother Sasha.
  • For 2017, it was dinner at Pomegranate with a different friend.
  • I taught tutorials before a butter chicken lunch with another friend in 2018, followed by a dinner with an aunt and uncle, cousins, and my girlfriend.
  • 2019 was a U of T Climate Strike and divestment teach-in, followed by dinner with a different friend.
  • For 2020, I attended the annual lecture of Toronto’s Sherlockian society and held a Zoom call with friends.
  • The plan for 2021 was a winter walk on the Toronto Islands, though only one brave soul undertook the six hour walk through slush with me. Then I had dinner with friends at home and some family video calls.
  • Last year, I visited Seeker’s Books; attended the book launch for John Fraser’s account of the death of the queen; had a dinner of chili, de-alcoholized champage, blueberry pie, and vanilla ice cream at home with my girlfriend; and spoke on the phone with family and with Andrea and Mehrzad in Ottawa.

As with weddings, I think fictitious depictions of birthdays, and especially ‘landmark’ birthdays like 40, has given me some false expectations about how grand, popular, and enjoyable such events are meant to be. I think that feeling of not measuring up is now enmeshed with my deep and long-running feelings of anxiety and isolation over the last few years. It feels like the pandemic provoked everyone to draw back into smaller social circles, remain less in social contact, and generally be harder to recruit into any group activity. My sense of isolation and worry is no doubt heightened by my long, difficult, and not-yet-successful post-PhD job search.

Somehow I feel like my climate journey has ended up with me in basically the most isolated possible position. The world is full of people who just want to keep the fossil fuel party going. If you question that, you can find community among activists, but you will never fully belong if you don’t accept the analysis and prescriptions of their anti-capitalist and intersectional account of the crisis. For people seized with the need for drastic action on where we get our energy — but also skeptical about using climate change to justify a utopian project of global political and economic transformation — it is easy to end up with a sense of being a minority of one with little social connection to anyone. You get all the social and psychological penalties of being a committed critic of the status quo, but not the solidarity and community that comes from adopting a pan-progressive interpretation of the crisis and strategy.

My environmentalism has also inhibited social ties because of my avoidance of long-distance travel. I never went back to the UK after finishing my M.Phil, and so never retained active long-term relationships with the people who I met there. Likewise, my connections with people in Vancouver have thinned out and fallen away one by one over years and years of trying to stay in touch exclusively through telecommunications. I get a complex and weird mixture of feelings when I think about how avoiding travel has had such costs, especially since my example has not influenced anyone, and in the face of my conviction that focusing on individual emissions is the wrong approach to solving a crisis that can only be addressed at the societal level. It is a difficult irony to recognize that if I had not been avoiding travel for the sake of GHG pollution, I would probably be in a better position in terms of career and networks to make a meaningful contribution to limiting the harm that climate change will do.

For at least a year or two now, I have been hoping that we would soon turn a corner and start reverting to something more like social life before the pandemic. These hopes have been consistently disappointed. I feel like everyone is being ground down and eroded by all the worries and fears in the world, and one result of that damage has been losing the will, energy, or inclination to maintain and develop the social ties which often do the most to make life bearable. (And Joyous!) (And an Insane Unmissable Inexplicable One-off Gift – personally I plan to live for glory and to ride this bronco to the last buck)

One of the painful paradoxes of all this is knowing that expressing these feelings of pain and isolation tends to lead to even less social contact. It’s a simple enough matter of psychology that people seek out situations filled with positive emotions and pursue ways of repeating them. Contrarily, experiences characterized by painful and difficult emotions — however justified — conjure a desire to get away and avoid such situations in the future. It’s a bit like how people who already have good jobs are appealing to employers in a way those currently without work aren’t, or how being perceived as successful and desirable in romance and relationships makes you more appealing to prospective partners, while a perception that someone is undesirable to others often tees us up to consider them undesirable ourselves.

I don’t mean to mis- or over-state things, or to suggest that I am not grateful and have not had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I have always been lucky and have received a huge amount of care and kindness in my life to this point. Awareness of those thoughts never leaves me, as despondent as I may get at times about my current situation and as fearful as I have become about the future of the world.

Not travelling has led to a lot of sad, solitary holidays: especially Christmas eve nights spent alone. While the sadness of those occassions was acute, it was also tempered with a broader awareness that I did have the sort of friends who I could call up and get an answer from, and was a part of communities of shared effort. The short-term alone now stacked atop long-term alone makes it harder to keep that sense of perspective. Two of my most important relationships are also going through trials which I will not describe, but which have added profoundly to the sense of being alone in the world or at least widely socially rejected. Being done with school now also adds to the fear, since I know that school is generally the best context for finding adult friendships.

Thinking about forty as the likely halfway point of my life has made the lead-up to this birthday a time of considerable reflection about my life up to this point, coupled with imagination about what the future will involve. I don’t have a neat closer for this post. In part, that reflects my awareness of all the contradictions clashing in my mind — between feeling aware and grateful for a very fortunate life, but also feeling fairly desperate about the present and future — between being devoted to the movement for environmental protection, but feeling that my work and thinking has estranged me from people more than it has connected me to them, including in terms of being able to work together effectively on solutions — between awareness of the psychological importance of hope, but also the dangers of self-deception and complacency when we assume things will work out well in spite of the evidence and trends to the contrary.

Life is an unearned gift, but it is also hard and indeed cruel. Indeed, my philosophy in the last few years has developed to see that cruelty as central: you never get as much of anything good as you hope or expect, and every nice experience which you can pleasantly imagine being repeated many times in the future is liable to be unilaterally cut off without warning. The implication I take from that is to focus on gratitude for what has happened and on doing the very best I can at everything I do. I work hard to avoid the feeling that, for whatever I am doing, the present effort is just the first in a long string of future repeats. No repeats are guaranteed, so I try to do my very best at everything I do. In addition to making life feel vital, important, and meaningful, this approach actually reduces stress and planning anxiety since it lets me skip the question of how fully to commit myself to things. When the model is that you do your best at everything you attempt, from a hike to a piece of scholarly writing to a friendly interaction with someone else, at least then when the good things in life come to an unexpected end you don’t feel the regret that if only you had known how brief and fragile those situations and relationships were going to prove, you would have tried harder and made the most of things.

A broad-ranging talk with James Burke

As part of promoting a new Connections series on Curiosity Stream launching on Nov. 9, I got the chance to interview historian of science and technology, science communicator, and series host James Burke:

The more interview-intensive part begins at 3:10.

Reviewing an unreleased book and TV show

While it won’t help with my rent, I nonetheless have some very interesting work for the next few days.

I am doing a close read twice of Professor Peter Russell’s forthcoming memoirs, which has been a privelege because of the respect I have for him as a thinker and a person, and a joy because of their colour, humour, and personality.

I am also previewing a new series of James Burke’s TV show Connections, which previously ran in 1978, 1994, and 1997. I have seen those old shows many times, and I thought a lot about his book The Axemaker’s Gift back in high school. I have the chance to interview him from Monaco on Wednesday, so I am giving the new material a careful viewing and thinking through how to make the best use of the conversation. There is scarcely a person I can think of who has a more educated and wide-ranging understanding of the relationships between science, technology, and human society. Since human civilization is presently hurtling toward a brick wall which threatens to rather flatten us all, it may be invaluable to get Burke’s views on how a defensive strategy from here can be undertaken.

Related:

Some documents from the history of fossil fuel divestment at the University of Toronto

Back in 2015, during the Toronto350.org / UofT350.org fossil fuel divestment campaign, I set up UofTFacultyDivest.com as a copy of what the Harvard campaign had up at harvardfacultydivest.com/.

The purposes of the site were to collect the attestations we needed for the formal university divestment policy, to have a repository of campaign-related documents, and to provide information about the campaign to anyone looking for it online.

The site was built with free WordPress software and plugins which have ceased to be compatible with modern web hosting, so I will re-list the important content here for the benefit of anyone seeking to learn about the campus fossil fuel divestment movement in the future:

Of course, U of T announced in 2021 that they would divest. Since then, the Climate Justice U of T group which developed out of the Leap Manifesto group which organized the second fossil fuel divestment campaign at U of T (after Toronto350 / UofT350) has succeeded in pressuring the federated colleges of St. Michael’s, Trinity, and Victoria University to divest as well.

Why aren’t the NDP climate and environmental champions?

It is generally held that the existence of this socialist tradition allows governments in Canada to play a larger role than in the United States. As noted above, however, pollution regulation in this country has imposed costs on industry that are only one-third of those imposed by American governments. Despite their much more vocal commitment to the virtues of free enterprise, Americans have been much more willing to see governments intervene to protect the environment than have Canadians.

Perhaps of more significance is the fact that this socialist tradition led to creation of the CCF in 1932 and the New Democratic Party in 1961. Environmentalism has always been seen as part of the progressive agenda and therefore it might be assumed that environmentalists form a natural constituency for the NDP.

In fact, however, the NDP has been no more successful than either of the other two parties in articulating environmental policy and NDP governments have not been particularly noted for action on the issue. It would be difficult to argue that British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, in which NDP governments have held power, have introduced more stringent pollution control measures than Ontario, where, until 1990, the NDP had not formed a government. A 1985 review of the record of NDP governments in Manitoba since it assumed power in 1982 reached this conclusion: “Changes in [environmental] legal arrangements and institutions have also been minimal; not one change seems to strike environmentalists as having great significance.”

The question is not whether the socialist foundations of the NDP will lead that party automatically to environmentalism, since they will not, but whether environmentalists can draw on that party’s concern for fairness and social justice as they work to put in place policies based on fairness and justice for the natural world.

Macdonald, Doug. The Politics of Pollution. McClelland & Steward; Toronto. 1991. p. 50–1

Related:

Eton’s Pop society

We knew that Gibson and Longden planned to put me up for Pop. The suspense grew heavy, our voices languished. Pop elections took hours, for the same boy could be put up and blackballed seven or eight times, a caucus of voters keeping out everybody till their favourite got in. Only the necessity of lunch ended these ordeals. Suddenly there was a noise of footsteps thudding up the wooden staircase of the tower. The door burst open, and about twenty Pops, many of whom had never spoken to me before, with bright coloured waistcoats, rolled umbrellas, buttonholes, braid, and “spongebag” trousers, came reeling in, like the college of cardinals arriving to congratulate some pious old freak whom fate had elevated to the throne of St. Peter. They made a great noise, shouting and slapping me on the back in the elation of their gesture, and Charles drifted away. I had got in on the first round, being put up by Knebworth, but after they had left only the small of Balkan Sobranie and Honey and Flowers remained to prove it was not a dream.

At that time Pop were the rulers of Eton, fawned on by masters, and the helpless Sixth Form. Such was their prestige that some boys who failed to get in never recovered; one was rumoured to have procured his sister for the influential members. Besides privilege—for they could beat anyone, fag any lower boy, walk arm-in-arm, wear pretty clothes, sit in their own club, and get away with minor breaches of discipline, they also possessed executive power, which their members tasted, often for the only time in their lives. To elect a boy without a colour, and a Colleger too, was a departure for them; it made them feel that they appreciated intellectual worth, and could not be accused of athleticism; they felt like the Viceroy after entertaining Gandhi. The rest of the school could not understand that a boy could be elected because he was amusing; if I got in without a colour it must be because I was a “bitch”; yet by Eton standards I was too unattractive to be a “bitch”—unless my very ugliness provided, for the jaded appetites of the Eton Society, the final attraction!

When I went to chapel I was conscious of eyes being upon me; some were masters, cold and censorious, they believed the worst; others were friendly and admiring. Those of the older boys were incredulous, but the younger ones stared hardest, for they could be beaten for not knowing all the Pops by sight, and mine was a mug they must learn by heart. Everybody congratulated me. The only person not to was Denis. He himself had been co-opted in as future Captain of the School, and could not believe that my election to such an anti-intellectual and reactionary body could give me pleasure. I thought that it was because he was envious, since he had been elected ex officio. My intravenous injection of success had begun to take.

Connolly, Cyril. Enemies of Promise. London; Routledge. 1938. p. 302–3

Massey College murder game drama

Every year, many participated in organized sports (volleyball, basketball, hockey) and got involved in squash ladders and ping-pong tournaments. There were laser tag evenings. But the sport that engaged most of the college for the better part of a week each year was, of course, the Murder Game. As [Michael] McGillion observed, it was “always a huge stirring up of your life. If you take it very seriously at Massey, your life stops, really. Your studies are halted. People are in rooms with maps and positioning systems. We had alarms set up. It was ridiculous how seriously we took it.” In the course of one game he recalls an episode “involving the master and Matthew Sullivan, who was in law, a Buddhist, an interesting character, and very quirky. I was his victim and the master was my victim. I saw the master as he bolted and went after him. Matthew went after me. And we had this chase, which must have gone on for half an hour, up and down the stairs of all the houses. The master can move. He’s very quick. He’s hard to catch.” [John] Fraser himself recounted another memorable moment that concerned Daniel Bader (JF, 1998–2000, 2004–5), theology student and successful killer. A devout Catholic who regularly spent time in the Newman Chapel, he was indignant to find himself “killed from behind” while “on his knees” there. Afterwards, he and another junior fellow (a fundamentalist Protestant) expressed their concern to Fraser about this “outrage to religion.” The master probably did not help matters when he responded: “Well, there is precedent. There was an archbishop killed in the Church of England.”

Grant, Judith Skelton. A Meeting of Minds: The Massey College Story. University of Toronto Press, 2015. p. 546–7

Previously:

The Massey College Rule of Courtesy

One of the items discussed each September when the don and committee chairs elected the previous April explained the college’s various structures and committees to the incoming group is the Rule of Courtesy. This rule, which has governed college behaviour since Robertson Davies’s day, essentially restates the Golden Rule. Here’s how it was explained on 17 September 1998: “[We] only ask that you be courteous, to think of how your actions may affect others with whom you live. [We] get a lot of mileage out of our one rule. [It] includes: not blaring loud music from your rooms, screaming across the quad (especially at night), cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen and bathrooms, not eating others’ food or using their laundry detergent, responding promptly to invitations. [It] also comes into play tonight: listen to those who have the floor, respect the opinions of others. Also included in the rule of courtesy is respect for the diversity of our community.” Breaches of the Rule of Courtesy — particularly in regard to hot plates [meals set aside in the JF fridge for Junior Fellows who cannot attend meals because of academic or other commitments] — were frequently under discussion at house committee and JCR meetings during John Fraser’s first term.

Grant, Judith Skelton. A Meeting of Minds: The Massey College Story. University of Toronto Press, 2015. p. 536–7

Note: Aside from my explanation of hot plates, the square brackets are in Grant’s text.

DeSilva and Harvey-Sànchez divestment podcast series complete

The fifth and final episode in Amanda Harvey-Sànchez and Julia DeSilva’s series on the University of Toronto fossil fuel divestment campaign, successively organized by Toronto350.org, UofT 350.org, and then the Leap Manifesto and Divestment & Beyond groups.

The episode brings back guests from each prior era, and includes some interesting reflections on what organizers from different eras felt they learned, the value of protest as an empowerment space and venue for inter-activist networking, the origins of the Leap Manifesto group in the aftermath of the 2016 rejection, as well as how they explain President Gertler’s decision to reverse himself and divest five years after he rejected the Toronto350.org campus fossil fuel divestment campaign.

Threads on previous episodes: