We used to own stuff. Not only that, if the stuff broke, we’d either have it fixed or fix it ourselves.

Take shoes, for example. Nowadays you can get a very nice pair of shoes for $100. If you look at inflation charts, you will find that that translates to about $10 in 1965 money, which would also have gotten you a nice pair of shoes. Superficially it looks like shoes have more or less maintained their value over the years, but there are significant differences.

When those 1965 brogans wore out, you took them down the street to the shoemaker’s shop, and got new soles and/or heels, your choice, put on for a fraction of the replacement cost. Down the line, repeat the process, and your shoes could last for many years if you took care of them.

Now, that same money gets you a spiffy new pair of technicolor trainers, with memory foam insoles and guaranteed no-slip outsoles, massively engineered for foot comfort so complete you barely feel the pavement. When they wear out in about a year or two, you can — toss them.

Of course, they had something like that in 1965. We called them sneakers: minimalist soles and canvas tops. When the cotton laces broke (often) we tied them back together with a square knot, took care that the knot landed just past an eyelet and carried on. You could repeat this process until you only had four or five inches of lace left. They cost considerably less than $10 and were good for a summer or two. If you’re comparing sneakers to trainers, we get a much better deal now than we did then, except all the shoes available nowadays are just variations on trainers, with fancier models gussied up with leather and what-not, but all unrepairable. There are no more shoe shops, or very few, as a result.

Back in the 60s we used to complain about planned obsolescence, the notion that manufacturers designed things to wear out on a schedule, to ensure a future market. We’ve learned a lot since then. No need to plan obsolescence, just stop caring about whether the things you make last.

That’s just an example of things we own outright, but that’s getting to be rarer and rarer, with the computer industry leading the way. In the digital world, you own very little. True, the hardware is yours, but if you want to do anything with it, you buy a subscription. Ten bucks a month here, ten bucks there, and you wonder where the money goes. Some years ago, there was a story about a guy who wanted to leave his iTunes collection to his son. Apple sued, and the court ruled he did not own any of it. Case closed.

This model has not been lost on the rest of the economy. It’s the ultimate irony: the deeper we get into market fundamentalist ideology, the less we actually own. It’s the root of the vast income gaps we see now.

Turns out the ancient alchemists were on the wrong track. The best way to turn lead into gold is to convince someone they need the lead, and they will give you the gold in exchange. Better yet, take the gold and just let them use the lead for a while.

Smoke, and a mirror

I started smoking, I guess, somewhere between 12 and 14 years old. The uncertainty lies in the definition of starting. Neither of my parents smoked, and their disapproval of the habit was complete, at least for us kids. As a result, I would sneak a fag away from home every so often but didn’t reach anything like a habit until I was 16 or 17.

Everyone who has ever let cigarette smoke past their lips and into their lungs knows one thing: it is an awful experience at first. This is quite unlike every other addictive chemical, whose initial effects are, at worst, boring. So how does anyone get beyond that to addiction to tobacco?

For one thing, it’s helpful to understand the status of smoking in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up. It was everywhere. On the street, in bars and restaurants, in elevators and doctors’ waiting rooms. There were even adds claiming that such-and-such a brand was the most “doctor recommended.” People would arrive at your house for a dinner date, pull out a cigarette, light up, and only then look around for an ashtray; and there it was, invariably, in every house.

I still remember vividly the smell of stale smoke and alcohol even in our house after any of the dinner parties my parents would throw. I thought it was wonderful. During holidays, a favorite uncle would be a house guest and spend his days sitting on the living room couch drinking rum-and-cokes and smoking cigarette after cigarette. I never heard any objection from my father, who was his older brother.

So, the answer is pretty simple: kids started smoking to look grown-up. Did it give you coughing fits and make you light-headed and slightly nauseous? Well, that was apparently the price of sophistication. There was no shortage of older kids to laugh at your discomfort, but they would be quick to remind you that as your body became accustomed to the poison you were giving it, the unpleasantness would pass and you would begin to enjoy it. In my case, it had the added attraction of being rebellious. It was a curious and irresistible combination of fitting in with adults and rebelling against them at one and the same time.

It was a thoroughly ingrained and respected part of society. When I was in Basic Training in 1966, we would occasionally get a smoke break. “Burn ‘em!” the drill sergeant would shout without warning, and within seconds cigarettes were pulled out of God knows where and the whole squad was enveloped in smoke. It was such a welcome respite that some guys who had never smoked started up just to get in on a treat that otherwise left them standing around with nothing to do.

Now, of course, everything is different. You can’t smoke anywhere indoors. If you want to grab a quick smoke at work or at a restaurant, you have to skulk around among the dumpsters in the back. Even at home people are so sensitive to the stink of it (something we never even noticed in the old days) that they sit outside their own homes to indulge.

But kids still start smoking, and adults still continue. Why?

For the same reasons. The glaring difference is that, as fitting in with the adult world has diminished as a motive to almost nothing, rebellion has burgeoned to displace it, and peer pressure has maintained its role. Add to that a plethora of new ways to indulge the tobacco habit, many without disturbing the air of others, and kids can feel in on some technology adults are woefully ignorant of.

Still, the numbers are encouragingly down as tobacco in any form has lost its sheen of sophistication. I quit 24 years ago as this transition was gaining steam. It was not an easy process, for society or for individuals like myself. I was lucky to be able to quit, luckier still that I had not already damaged my body irreparably.

So what’s the point of this rather long-winded disquisition? There are lessons here about human nature.

All ideological blather aside, we are a social species. Irrevocably, gloriously, abjectly, and mercilessly social. Everything we do is informed by it, but not always obviously; sometimes it’s in invisible, even insidious ways. Conformity and rebellion, far from being diametric opposites, are hopelessly entangled in complex ways, because our social memberships are complex and overlapping. We can always make micro adjustments to that jumble of loyalties to justify almost any behavior, even behavior that is clearly pathological.

Older adults love to make fun of rebellious teens all dressing the same despite their cult of non-conformity, but we could say the same for ourselves.

Christmas, again

Something about Christmas brings out the way each of us feels about the odd process of being human. It is especially true this year, amid a stubbornly persistent pandemic and a burgeoning culture war in which all sides see themselves as champions of the beleaguered masses. Not much can be said about the pandemic, which seems to embody every horror film ever made in which the not-yet-vanquished monster rises, incredibly, again. Covid is the Freddy Krueger of diseases. The most telling aspect is that has been subsumed and conscripted into the service of the culture war, no longer standing on its own as an issue.

You might say the same for the Christmas season. But somehow the “War on Christmas” doesn’t quite resonate, possibly because the day itself has long since devolved into a market holiday. The season, however, remains the focus of reflection on the human condition, there being no shortage of winter milestones to mark in other religious traditions.

To me, the story that most closely aligns with the sentiments associated with Christmas occurred on Christmas day in 1914. World War I had begun in earnest, and, five months into it, had settled into a war of attrition. Both sides pulled back to reconsider their strategies, to regroup and rearm in the days leading up to the holidays. Troops on both sides took the opportunity to relax their guard, and even to climb out of the trenches for a breather. By the time Christmas itself came around things had become almost casual. Soldiers who had been blowing each other up a few weeks before exchanged pleasantries, and at one point even a friendly soccer game broke out. The good will lasted only until the end of the day. By nightfall, the killing resumed in full force.

Optimists see this as proof that, given the chance, people will live harmoniously with each other, realizing that their common interests far outweigh their differences. Pessimists, of course, will focus on the fact that after a brief lull to catch their breaths, soldiers returned to the grim task of eliminating each other with gusto once again.

Like most things in life, it’s not as simple as either side would like to think. Instead, the incident illustrates the push and pull of our social natures. We strive to belong but belonging to one group implies rejection of other groups. And so, we have this odd dance of love and hate, and we need to reconcile the two. But how?

This is where the story reflects the reality of the human condition to perfection. The violence is paused for a brief interlude of camaraderie, and then resumes, allowing us to congratulate ourselves and then carry on with the killing.

That this story has become a part of Christmas mythology, and in the retelling affirms our belief in ourselves as just and loving underneath it all, allows us to pick up where we left off once the season is over.

Good hunting to you and watch your back.

Can you hear me now?

The other day I had reason to call customer support for one of my credit cards. Words to strike fear in the hearts of even the strong, right?

It went about as expected, maybe a bit worse. After the customary stalling by running through the automated responses a few times, I was put on hold, and eventually the grating music was interrupted by an actual human voice.

Lucky me, I thought. The voice was clearly South Asian, probably Indian. I say clearly, but advisedly. The line kept crackling and breaking up. Whenever I mentioned that, the person at the other end apologized, did something technical, and asked if that was better.

It was. In a way. During the static-free intervals when the transmission was clear, there were constant noises in the background. The suport person obviously had the call on speaker phone. I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the poor voice quality on speaker phone; it’s as if the call were taking place in a cavern. The distraction from the backgropund noise only made matters worse; the constant clatter was occasionally punctuated by a loud bang.

The support person resolved my problem, and I thanked her whole-heartedly.

Why? Because the issues with the call reminded me of what is happening in India while much of the rest of the world is enjoying a respite from a cruel pandemic. How a nascent success at controlling Covid-19 was derailed by a misguided populist leader, who prematurely declared victory and removed all restrictions. How hospitals and other health services threw up their hands in defeat, overwhelmed beyond their capacity. How the sick and dying were housed in tents and corridors. How a moratorium was declared on cremations due to concerns about contamination of the air. How the Ganges, a river sacred to Hindus, was awash with unidentified corpses under the reign of a Hindu extremist, of all people. How working from home was a luxury not afforded to many in India but was a means of survival in the midst of catastrophe to those who could do it.

I thanked her for somehow bearing all that and still managing to survive and function at all, let alone well.

I thanked her for surviving and hoped that the children I heard in the background would grow to be as strong as she is.

And I thanked her for reminding me of what is and isn’t important.

A year of muddling through: things learned from the pandemic

You can’t waste time. There is always more of it. You might not be in it, but in that case you won’t be around to complain.

You can’t spend time, as if it were a commodity to use in a value exchange. You can’t spend it because you have no control over it.

For the same reasons, you can’t use time, wisely, foolishly, or any other way. To use a thing, you first have to grasp it. Try to grasp time, and it disappears.

It is possible, however, to feel you don’t have enough time while simultaneously feeling overwhelmed by its abundance. You can feel pressured and bored all at once.

The mind is like a huge muddy prairie, full of boundless wonder, but easy to get bogged down in. Even if you keep moving, you leave behind deep ruts for the return trip.

Hindsight is rarely 20/20. It’s a haze of excuses and misplaced or unrecognized priorities. Luckily, you can just make out reality if you squint.

Memory is the vapor trail you leave behind in the turbulence of your passage. Look at it long enough, and you can see all kinds of fanciful shapes.

Work is anything you do for other people; play is anything you do for yourself. The problem is that they often mix, and it’s hard to keep them straight.

Some things you crave only because you can’t have them. Other things you crave even though you already have them.

No amount of worrying has ever determined the future, which happens with no regard for your plans. Then it becomes the past, which no amount of regret has ever changed.

The meaning of life is like a knife that’s all edge and no handle. Go ahead, try to grasp it.

You need people more than you think, even if only in the background. Just sitting in a room full of other people is healing.

Nothing will keep you from dying.

Love is not all there is, but it is all that’s worth anything.