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.

The history of the Arab Spring

The New York Times has published an exceptional long article by Scott Anderson about the history of the Middle East since 2003. It’s an ambitious text to have written, not a trivial task to read, and perhaps a suggestion that print journalism is enduring in its dedication to telling complicated stories, despite ongoing challenges to the business model and staffs of many of the most important print sources. It also includes some remarkable photography by Paolo Pellegrin.

A summary, early in the article, attributes special importance to the post-Ottoman settlement:

Yet one pattern does emerge, and it is striking. While most of the 22 nations that make up the Arab world have been buffeted to some degree by the Arab Spring, the six most profoundly affected — Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen — are all republics, rather than monarchies. And of these six, the three that have disintegrated so completely as to raise doubt that they will ever again exist as functioning states — Iraq, Syria and Libya — are all members of that small list of Arab countries created by Western imperial powers in the early 20th century. In each, little thought was given to national coherence, and even less to tribal or sectarian divisions. Certainly, these same internal divisions exist in many of the region’s other republics, as well as in its monarchies, but it would seem undeniable that those two factors operating in concert — the lack of an intrinsic sense of national identity joined to a form of government that supplanted the traditional organizing principle of society — left Iraq, Syria and Libya especially vulnerable when the storms of change descended.

This accords closely to Middle Eastern history as interpreted by many of the sources we read in my Oxford M.Phil. In particular, it reminds me of David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East.

Not applying to Oxford

In the last few days, I have told a few stories about my time with the Oxford University Walking Club: energetic mountain climbers who are very talented and excellent company. Expeditions with the club was one of the most enjoyable things during my two years in England.

In many ways, it would be appealing to go back to Oxford for my doctorate. I am sure I would appreciate it more now – after four years of work – than I did when I went in after my undergrad degree, back in 2005. There is much to appreciate: the parks, the libraries, and most wonderfully the conversations with knowledgeable and intelligent people of all disciplines.

The major reason I am not applying to Oxford is just finances. Degrees there are relatively quick (you can do an M.Phil and D.Phil in about four years), but it is usually up to students to fund themselves. Some get big scholarships like the Rhodes, but many finance it with a combination of their own savings, familial help, and debt. By contrast, the better American schools are very likely to fund you as a doctoral student.

I was looking at the statistics for Duke University, for example. They fund 95% of their doctoral students. A North American PhD can easily run for five years or more. It would be asking a lot for people to be self-funding as well, especially when the research and teaching provided by doctoral students are integral to the work of universities. The deal in the US seems to be that if you get into a decent school, they can afford to fund you. Oxford University, along with all the colleges, have an endowment of about £3.3 billion (US$5.1 billion). Yale University, by contrast, has an endowment of US$19.4 billion, while Harvard has US$32.0 billion.

Money issues aside, it should be stressed that Oxford is a charming and unique place. There is nowhere else where you can live within the history of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, now more than 900 years old. There is also a marvellous mixture of people there, and it is one of the best places anywhere for turning over new ideas. It’s unfortunate that I am unable to visit more often. Alas, avoiding flying makes that hard.

The serial (Oxford) comma

When writing lists, there are two different conventions for what to do before the final item:

  1. Lions, tigers and bears are charging toward us from all directions.
  2. To fend them off we will need rifles, pepper spray, and dynamite.

I strongly prefer the second approach, where the final item is set off with a comma, and not just because of where I did my M.Phil.

I have heard some people argue that the commas in a list are stand-ins for the word ‘and’. Instead of writing “life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, we should therefore write “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. To add a comma between “liberty” and “the pursuit of happiness” while keeping the “and” is redundant.

I can see the point of this argument, but I think it takes too mechanical a view of language. The purpose of every element of language is to convey ideas and – James Joyce aside – it is usually best to do so clearly. The Oxford comma is very clear. The writer has a list of items, and each item is separated from each other item by means of a comma. In the event of a higher level list, with items separated by semicolons, the final semicolon would surely not be omitted:

His crimes were many: some related to property, like theft and burglary; some related to reputation, including many slanders; and some wanton violations of the Law of the Sea, particularly the disregard of established conventions for deciding maritime boundaries.

In this data-driven age, the serial comma is also in keeping with mathematical and computational conventions. The set of prime factors of my telephone number is: {2, 3, 11, 89, 709453}. Comma separated values are also a common way to store and exchange data sets.

My hope is that I have won over a waverer or two to the serial comma approach. If not, can we please at least agree to put only a single space after a period? We do not live in the age of typewriters anymore!

Express mail and spectacles

I really appreciate the efforts of everyone who helped me get my Action Canada fellowship application together – both my references and the people who have helped to assemble everything across oceans and continents, especially my friend Antonia.

Aside from dashing around getting reference letters and mailing a priority courier package today, I also got some new glasses from Albert Opticians on Sparks Street. They are much bolder than my old ones, and my prescription seems to have changed a fair bit since I got my first pair in 2001.

Indeed, the world has quite an uncanny quality at the moment. Everything is much sharper than I am used to it being; I don’t need to squint to read; and the three-dimensionality of everything is much more noticeable than normal. Walking around for the first few minutes, things were so different, I felt unsteady on my feet. Even now, it is super noticeable when a computer screen is being viewed from an angle other than straight-on. Also, three dimensional objects seem distorted when examined close up, as though being viewed through a wide-angle lens.

For comparison:

Bonus: My father in specs

[Update: 12 February 2011] Here’s a more human shot with the new glasses.

I have to be somewhere

I don’t think there has been any point in my life when I had open-ended time to myself. That is to say, a period where I could have gone and done anything without eventually violating somebody’s expectation that I would be in a particular place at a particular time.

As a child, nobody is in a position to determine the shape of their life (those who are forced to do so early are forced early into adulthood). In high school and university, there are breaks with defined endings. While working, I have applied for and received defined periods of vacation. I accepted a university position before finishing high school, accepted a grad school position before finishing my undergraduate degree, and accepted a job before finishing grad school. Now, I expect to accept a new job before reaching the defined endpoint of my current one. My calendars – literal or figurative – have always included a “first day at X” entry, somewhere out in the future.

I suppose the logical opposite of all that structure is the life of the aimless wanderer: the protagonist from On The Road or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to lacking obligations to appear at such-a-place and such-a-time, such characters tend to be unencumbered by burdensome possessions. Making the transition from one of those states to the other – in either direction – seems daunting. Both transitions highlight the limits of human freedom. Going from an unscheduled life to one filled with obligations involves accepting the restrictions that the expectations and actions of other place upon each of us, as individuals. The universe simply will not provide for us to do whatever we wish indefinitely. More grimly, the transition from structure to an open-ended existence seems inevitably bound to the idea of mortality, and the certainty that there will be a definite end to freedom as some unknown time in the future. Being cast into that expanse, without the benefit of near-term signposts to distract from the dire conclusion, seems likely to be frightening and macabre. Perhaps that perspective shows how I am more concerned about risk than excited about opportunity.

All told, certainty is a valuable thing. Similarly, if one wishes to influence the world, it seems promising when there are expectations about where one will be in the future, and what one will be doing. Still, it could be an interesting experience to face the unknown span of all of one’s remaining life without seeing significant set markers.

LeBreton Towers

For the whole time I have been living in the LeBreton Flats area, these towers have been under construction. They are out in an open patch of land, with the War Museum in one corner and open fields in most of it. Apparently, the land used to be contaminated, but has had the soil carted off and been re-designated for development. Along with residential structures, another national museum is promised on one of the many billboards that keep getting knocked over and smashed by the wind.

One tower is already finished and has some people living in it, though it is far from full. A second is just a skeletal frame of steel and concrete.

Thankfully for wandering photographers, the fencing around the site is far from complete. Likewise, the level of surveillance. Indeed, someone bolder than I could probably have their run of the semi-constructed tower, if they wanted.

A bit of the ways up Booth Street, there is another significant project ongoing. This one part of the much-touted ‘Economic action plan.’ Between the two, the area north of Chinatown has been in a fairly dynamic state lately.

People are already living in the first tower. Probably, those with apartments facing towards downtown have made the safer choice. While there is a creek and a park off in that direction, the view the other way remains unknown until the plans for the whole area are sorted out.

To me, it seems a bit curious to light the whole site up so elaborately at a time when nobody is working.

The towers are mostly glass and concrete, like most of the high structures in the area. At the top, the first one has a pretty elaborate looking penthouse with balconies, but it seems to be uninhabited still.

The gray rectangular block in the corner here is Canada’s National Archives.

The new towers do seem more attractive than the giant concrete waffles that were put up in previous decades. That said, the nicest housing in this area probably consists of converted two-story brick houses. The condition varies a lot, and they are often poorly insulated (foolish in this climate), but at least they make you more connected with your neighbourhood than living in a big filing cabinet.

Conference on a world more than four degrees warmer

Given our increasingly slim chances of avoiding more than 2˚C of global warming, it makes sense to start thinking about what a world hotter than that could be like.

The University of Oxford recently hosted a conference on the subject: 4degrees International Climate Change Conference: Implications of a Global Climate Change of 4 plus Degrees for People, Ecosystems, and Earth Systems.

32 of the short lectures are available free, via iTunes.

As an aside, posts might be thin here for the next while. Work is busy, and I am concentrating efforts on BuryCoal. If you haven’t had a look at that site yet, please do. Some good discussions on the posts people have already written would be just the thing.