Thursday, July 20, 2023

Cruel Summer

Post-apocalypse entertainment and fears of nuclear war have conditioned us to envision the end of the world coming in a singular, catastrophic moment. Climate change is the real apocalypse, and it does not operate like that. It's a literal slow burn, something that has made it easier to ignore or put off, boiled frog style. 

Things have deteriorated enough this summer, however, that the horror of our future is sinking in with far greater clarity. It started with the choking air from Canadian wildfires, and continued with a deadly heatwave. In my early childhood, we had hot summers, but we also had mild summers, too. Now every summer is worse than the one that came before with no end in sight. Every wretchedly hot summer turns out to be cooler than any others we will experience in our lifetimes. 

For a long time it was easy to think of the consequences of climate change as part of the future, but now it is the present. We used to be able to think there was time to work with, now that time is up. Obviously we can still take action to prevent the very worst from happening, but at this point we know that even if we manage to make major changes, suffering will still come. 

There's also the despair of knowing those major changes won't happen. Communities around the country fight against solar and wind farms, including liberal ones. Conservative politicians and their related media still deny climate change, as do the masses of conservative voters. They will likely continue making light of it as more people die of heat stroke and the coasts flood. Creating legislation to deal with climate change in this environment, where corporate lobbyists also maintain a stranglehold, is impossible. I simply do not see any political solution coming. 

The ultimate cruelty of this summer is that right-thinking people are being forced to watch the world burn with no way of stopping it. Climate change is already drastically altering our physical environments, I think it also has the power to shatter our mental ones, too. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Our Tiresome Obsession With Elite Universities

My Substack this week is about ending our obsession with elite private universities, which dominate our discourse on higher ed despite representing a tiny number of students. 

This one has been percolating for a long time, so please give it a look and share it with a friend. Here's my favorite passage: 

"Now that I live in a well-to-do New Jersey suburb and teach at a private school in New York City I see how getting your child into an Ivy League university is the ultimate bourgeois class status trump card. Those Instagrammable vacations abroad and renovated kitchens are nice, but can’t measure up to having offspring at Yale. That eventuality proves that you are the true winner of the game of Meritocracy.

It’s telling that the quality of education is rarely cited as the motivation. It’s all about power, status, and “connections.” Critics of the Supreme Court are rightly concerned that their decision will narrow the range of people who can get into these hallowed, ivied walls of power. While that is a concern, the far bigger problem is that these institutions have such prominence in our society in the first place.

It is frankly obscene that the elite of a democratic society is being manufactured by private institutions with no obligations to the public. Their favoritism towards “legacies” puts lie to their pretensions of “meritocracy.” It is also obscene that state university systems face cutbacks when Harvard has an endowment the size of a small country’s GDP. In a just world, these institutions would be expropriated out of existence."

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Avoiding the Summer Blues

Before I get into today's topic I just wanted to mention that I wrote a new Substack on the need to bring back the blogosphere. Twitter's implosion is giving us a chance to abandon the toxic micro-blogging format altogether and wrest online discourse away from corporate control. 

With that out of the way I thought I would get into a rather niche topic that's especially relevant to my fellow educators: avoiding the summer blues. Teaching is a strange job in that it packs more than twelve months worth of work and effort into ten. I don't have my "summers off" as much as I am getting leave time away from the frontline trenches. I started this summer, as I do all of them, in a state of absolute exhaustion. 

Once the shock of the end wears off and I start to recover, I am prone to getting depressed. I wondered if I was some kind of freak, since summer is supposed to be the freest, happiest time of the year. I was glad to see a recent Washington Post article about the prevalence of summer seasonal depression to know that I am not alone. Seasonal depression is more common in winter for obvious reasons: cold, lack of light, inability to do a lot of activities. As the article points out, summer has its own environmental stressors, especially as our summer weather and heat are getting more extreme with climate change. Punishing heat and humidity and horrible air from wildfires can make daily life miserable. When it gets cold outside I am still able to go for long walks, I just need to bundle up. When it gets really hot trying to go for a long walk just becomes unbearable. 

I wonder if this study noticed if this dynamic was worse among educators. It is not easy going from having almost no time to myself to having the hours of each day stretched out before me empty in need of filling up. Oftentimes I end up filling the time by spending more of it on social media, which usually just ends up making me more unhappy. I remember the summer of 2020 in particular, when COVID made it impossible for us to travel and to enjoy indoor activities. I retreated to social media, which was aflame with things like Donald Trump having protestors gassed so he could have a photo-op in front of a church. Reading about thousands of people dying a day in the pandemic, protestors being brutalized by police, and stressing about the 2020 election just made me completely miserable. On top of that, I was tasked with doing extra prep work by my school to get ready to teach under COVID circumstances, as opposed to the emergency flailing I was thrown into in the spring. It was by far the worst summer since the one in college where I worked two jobs while living friendless in my hometown. (I guess summer depression is not a new thing for me.) 

This summer I will get to travel, go to the movies, and hang out in coffee houses, but those things aren't enough. I have been experimenting with some new techniques inspired by my interest in philosophy. In the first case I have taken to heart Marcus Aurelius' advice that when confronted with a problem, you should ask yourself if it can be overcome or not. If yes, then the solution is to take care of it instead of ignoring it. If the answer is no, then stop worrying because there's nothing you can do anyway. In my daily life this means taking care of things that need to be taken care of: cleaning up the house, seeing doctors and dentists, exercise, course preparation, and yard work. I have leaned into the latter thinking of Voltaire's line "we must cultivate our garden" in Candide. Instead of doom scrolling and fretting about the world's iniquities, I am using the power washing to get the grime from my awnings. Every single day I have a checklist that includes 1. Taking care of myself 2. Taking care of the house 3. Reading 4. Writing 5. Doing something active with my kids. 

So far my mood has been much improved. For others out there getting hit with the summer blues I prescribe a lot of practical labor and regular habits. Every day I can feel like I've done something while feeling far more relaxed than I do on work days, when I am liable to pass out on the train ride home. I am beginning to wonder if this is what retirement is like. If so, sign me up. 

Friday, July 7, 2023

The Grateful Dead, "He's Gone" (Track of the Week)

Longtime friends know that I am a longtime Grateful Dead hater. I first encountered them in the late 80s, when they were selling out stadiums and had a big hit with "Touch of Grey." Their name made them sound like a metal band, but this song sounded like some far too mellow 80s pop music. The way Jerry Garcia sang "I will survive" like he was falling asleep seemed to drain the song of any urgency. I just didn't get it. 

Soon after that I started listening to classic rock radio, and so I heard songs like "Casey Jones" and "Trucking" with some regularity. I bought a cassette of the Skeletons from the Closet comp (admittedly not a good place to start) and was singularly unimpressed. I just could not get over how all this music steeped in the soulful roots of blues and country could be sung so feebly. At that point in the early 90s I was confirmed in my opinion that the Dead sucked.

Over the years I met people whose taste in music I respected who liked them. My dislike was so intense that I just refused to listen and assumed that my friends had been hypnotized by hippies at some point in their lives, or that they had enjoyed the Deadhead culture without paying much attention to the product at the center of it. (As a Mets fan I can certainly understand this dynamic.)

As I have aged I have learned not to trust the prejudices and attitudes formed in my youth. After all, I once told people in my mid-20s that I would never get married or be a father, and now I enjoy both so much I can't imagine a different life. I once poo-pooed musical theater and graphic novels, and now I enjoy both. In that spirit, earlier this year I reached out to some Dead fans in my life for recommendations to attempt to change my ways. 

Not surprisingly, they all gave me live songs to listen to. My big mistake in my youth was getting my impression of the Dead from their studio recordings, which I have certainly not changed my mind about whatsoever. Live, however, they could weave quite a sonic tapestry, including taking old songs and adding something new to them. It's obvious that Garcia was a true student of American roots music, which I also love, and that he had a great ear for musical nuance. 

This all came to me yesterday when I was listening to the Europe 72 album in my car while waiting to pick my kids up from camp. "He's Gone" was not one of the songs recommended to me, but it just hit me the right way. The rhythm and feel grabbed me from the start and I found myself grooving along, not concerned about waiting for my kids in the hot July sun. 

I still think that the Dead could've been a truly great band had they brought in a lead singer with the soul power that the music requires. Nevertheless, I can enjoy the interplay of their live music, and the reminder that you can always change your mind about things, even in middle age. 

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

What the Way July 4th is Celebrated Says About America's Divides

My newest Substack is up, which uses the July 4th holiday to think about America's historical continuities. I use Jefferson Cowie's recent books to talk about how ideologies of extreme individualism and a definition of freedom rooted in white supremacy continue to damage our polity. I see these dysfunctions coming out clearly in the recent Supreme Court cases. 

I also don't just want to write about my Substack this time. A friend and longtime reader put a question to me that I would like to investigate. He splits his time between Pittsburgh and rural Pennsylvania, and noted how much of a big deal the July 4th holiday is in the latter place. He was wondering whether this represents another facet of our country's cultural divide.

I grew up in a rural area and lived in other rural spaces during parts of my adulthood, and I indeed can say that July 4th is a more intense event in those places compared to other, more urban places I have lived. When I was back in my hometown a few years ago for the holiday I was struck by the volume of fireworks people were letting off in their yards. As we drove on the outskirts of town to get to the official fireworks, the low end of the horizon was constantly illuminated. 

Some of this is structural. In small towns it's easier to organize communal events.There's also the boredom factor. If there's not a lot going on, a parade and blowing things up is pretty exciting. That's at least how I felt as a kid. To my friend's point, some of it is more about political culture.

July 4th celebrations in small towns tend to engage in a very uncomplicated version of nationalism (which gets called "patriotism.") It's not necessarily an aggressive or hateful nationalism, but it is certainly one that leaves little room for ambivalence or hybrid identities. Go to one of these places on the 4th, and it will feel like a real throwback to a pre-1960s form of public life. Again, it is not overtly malicious and in fact can be a lot of fun to participate in. When I was back in my hometown six years ago, my kids got to take part in the children's 4th of July parade, and we all had a blast. 

Beneath it all, however, lies the "real Americans" assumption. The overwhelmingly white and native-born crowds in these small towns see themselves as the "real Americans." They see the United States as a place made up of them and FOR them. (Hence the "take our country back" rhetoric.) It's very easy to wave the flag so hard when you are not celebrating an abstract nation but instead are affirming your concrete self.

I can contrast this with what I saw on social media yesterday, when lots of progressive and lefty folks were posting their ambivalence or even outright dislike towards the holiday. I actually found this almost as irritating as the loud jingoism I heard in other quarters. The kvetching certainly comes from real feelings and critiques, but it's intended to get internet street cred by being edgy, like me as a teen poo-pooing any and all popular music. Just as the left needs to articulate a new definition of freedom, it would serve them politically to come up with a new kind of patriotism. Dunking on the USA in public all the time will not help win converts, especially in "real America."