07 April 2022

How I am

"How are you?" somebody recently asked me. It is a perfunctory question, of course, and what is expected is a perfunctory answer: "Thank you, I am fine."

But life is more complicated than this, more layered, and so I started thinking about it.

On a personal level, I couldn't be happier -- or luckier, because I am not sure that I deserve what I have got. I have a lovely wife. We are both healthy as far as anyone can know. We own a nice little apartment in a decent neighbourhood. We can afford to travel once a year. We enjoy the same things: A walk in the park, a good discussion, a nice dinner, a good bottle of wine, sex, foreign films, reading. Yes, we are getting older, but that's life. And yes, a warm relationship with my two daughters would be nice, but that's life too.

The career level is next. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I had the privilege of a good education -- although how good it was, I didn't know until much later. An Austrian grammar school, the University of Vienna, the University of British Columbia. I did hope for a faculty position at a research university, but it never came. It was my own fault, really. I am not an agreeable person, and I didn't think that agreeableness was a necessary or even useful characteristic for an academic (1).

I now make a living teaching ecology and evolution to some uninterested students at a fourth-rate university. Why do I love it? Because I spent a lost decade as a mid-level university bureaucrat at a fourth-rate university. The only thing missing in my professional life today is good discussions with smart people. (But maybe the days of the smart people are over.) That and benefits would be nice.

Which brings me to the last level, the human level. The war in Ukraine, starving people in Afghanistan, thug nations, CoViD, climate change, the fall of democracy, continued class privilege, plastic pollution, the effects of social media, the decline of education, real estate speculation -- I am sure I am forgetting a few things.

These problems are infuriating, not because "somebody" should solve them, but because some of them cannot be solved until people change. And we won't change. As Hemingway said in my favourite book (2): "The only thing that could spoil a day was people[.]"

People who insist on being heard but refuse to listen. Absolute democrats who forget that the average person is an idiot. Pseudo democrats for whom democracy means holding power by any means. People who confuse facts and opinions. People who insist on diversity but are offended by any opinion but their own. Antivaxxers who demand a rabies vaccine when bitten by a dog. Pro-lifers who love every embryo unless it turns out to be gay or Muslim. Monster truck drivers whose transportation needs are indistinguishable from those of SmartCar drivers. People who demand government action but start complaining as soon as the government does act. Bullies who cry foul as soon as someone is hitting back. People who drive to the U.S. to buy gas or milk. Tax evaders. People who think that money is more important than principles. 

I know that it is not the goal of humankind to spoil my day. But if it were, humanity would be rather successful at it.

But other than that: Thank you, I am fine. 

(1) "The difficulty is that disproof is a hard doctrine. If you have a hypothesis and I have another hypothesis, evidently one of them must be eliminated. The scientist seems to have no choice but to be either soft-headed or disputatious." J. R. Platt (1964), Strong Inference. Science 146: 347 - 353.
(2) E. Hemingway (1964), A Moveable Feast.