Still Funny After All These Years


The last time I looked, I was 35.  So, for all intents and purposes, that’s where I remain.  My outward appearance tells a different story (grey hair, weathered eyes and various bits that sag) but inside my head, I’m the same age as James Bond.  This isn’t a problem, really (James never had it so good!) but trying to reconcile 2019 with where I’m livin’ (somewhere in the early 90s) is getting more and more difficult.  Let’s face it, folks!  The 21st century has taken a serious turn down Silly Street and, these days, it’s all I can do to keep a straight face.  Let me demonstrate:

All the cops look like kids.  I don’t remember when we started giving children guns and badges, but it’s quite disconcerting to be stopped on the highway by somebody who looks like they just stepped out of Paw Patrol.

New Year’s Eve isn’t all that fascinating anymore.  Once an annual debauch worthy of the Marquis de Sade and Henry VIII, New Year’s Eve has become Amateur Hour – one brief moment when button-down people unbutton, drink an adult beverage and try and sneak in a kiss at midnight.  (Good luck with that one, BTW.)  This is a party?  I’m laughin’!

Most of the music sounds like noise.  I have questions!  What is classic hip-hop?  How is that different from regular hip-hop?  Why hasn’t anyone noticed that Taylor Swift only sings one song?  Are we absolutely certain Cardi B and Nicki Minaj aren’t the same person?  And how the hell did Ed Sheeran become a love song heartthrob?

Everything is expensive.  Hey, dentists!  You’re filling a tooth, not renovating the Great Wall of China.

Self-help doesn’t mean what it used to.  First I had to pump my own gas, then I had to bring my own bags, now I have to checkout my own groceries.  This thing isn’t going to end until hospitals are offering self-inflicted, video-assisted gallbladder operations – on YouTube!

Fashion is less than fashionable.  Karl Lagerfeld is dead, and when I look at some of the crap strutting down the Paris runways, I’m not feeling all that well myself.

What happened to junk food?  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “Going to McDonald’s for a salad is like going to a hooker for a hug.”

And finally:

Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with women.  Not all that new, but this recent trick of taking old movies, changing the main characters from male to female and calling it feminism is so totally condescending even Harvey Weinstein is saying, “WTF?”

Self-Help and the Modern World

Have you ever noticed that people who buy Self-Help books never buy just one?  They always have three or four of them kicking around.  Usually they’re all on the same subject, but sometimes — and this is really scary — they’re all over the map.  There are people (we all know them) who could use a little help, self or otherwise.  There are also people who genuinely want to improve themselves; their outlook, their personality, their world, in general.  There’s nothing wrong with that!  In fact, most of us could do with a tuneup every once in a while.  However, this is the basis of the Self-Help industry.  They know, that we know, that there’s something wrong with us.  All they have to do is sell us the cure.  And that’s the reason people buy so many Self-Help books: they are a cure — that doesn’t work.

Self improvement is not a recent innovation.  There is probably something called A Slave’s Guide to Better Cowering written in hieroglyphics on a papyrus scroll, buried in the Nile Delta somewhere.  However, Self-Help is less than a hundred years old.  Its rapid development into a multimillion dollar industry runs exactly parallel with the development of our contemporary society.

There are two reasons Self-Help has become such a lucrative business.  First, we are losing our sense of family, and secondly we have lost our sense of community.

As we head off into the 21st century, our homes are no longer multigenerational.  Our parents and grandparents do not return to the family in old age.  Increasingly, they are warehoused, first in retirement communities, and then in care facilities.  Likewise, as most families consist of one or more working adults, childcare is outsourced, first to Daycare then the public school system.  Although these may be excellent institutions, they simply do not have a personal, vested interest in either education or development (beyond immediate behavioural problems.)  In other words, it’s a lot easier to fly right if you have grandma looking over your shoulder — or Dad — because they have an emotional attachment to you and pretty much everything you do.  You are the centre of their world, and they genuinely want to help you find your way around.  Likewise, as you grow older, your emotional connection to your parents and grandparents is strengthened by, if nothing else, proximity.  Nobody in a multigenerational family is left on their own to fend for themselves.  It isn’t in anybody’s emotional best interest.   Just as an aside, I know there are excellent care facilities everywhere with expertly trained staff, and I cast no aspersions on them.  However, at the end of the day, nobody wants you to succeed at life as much as grandma and grandpa do — and that lasts forever.  As we continue to replace the functioning parts of our multigenerational families with multi-task, care-for-hire personal assistants, we are turning ourselves into individual entities, relying on the kindness of strangers for our well-being.

It works the same for neighbourhoods.  In the old days, for better or for worse, the multigenerational family actually cared what the neighbours thought.  This was simply because they knew who the neighbours were.  They didn’t merely share the back fence; they shared community values and responsibilities.  Neighbours were involved with the comings and goings of the neighbourhood, which included Bob’s diet or Janet’s quit smoking plan.  People were available to help, and they did.  In essence, neighbours were all in it together.  However, as that community disappears, we are not only becoming physically isolated in the world; we are now increasingly psychologically alone.

The mantras of the Self-Help crowd are “Show personal responsibility” and “Take ownership of your problems.”  This is just a sugar-coated way of saying, “Good luck!  You’re on your own!”  Since we no longer believe we can rely on the traditional community to support us, we go looking elsewhere for help.  Invariably, this means throwing money at the problem; either through professional assistance or Self-Help.  And there we are again, back at that one-size-fits-all guide to personal growth, wealth and happiness: the Self-Help book.

Somehow, I find it impossible to believe that somebody sitting in their converted laundry room cranking out 800 words a day, has any connection to my quest to quit procrastinating.  They may have a good plan.  It may have worked wonders for them.   However, unless they know my heavy schedule of avoidance behaviour, I’m afraid they’re going to come up short.  By the same token (and I’m sure this worked for you, too) no three-chapter discussion of “How to Dress for Success” ever trumped my mother telling me to wash my hair and put on a tie.

Sometimes, the best self-help comes with some sharp-tongued maternal assistance.

Finding a Cure for Self-esteem

I’m going to tell you how to make a million dollars.  It’s easy – just write Self-Help books.  This is about to become a growth industry that’s absolutely recession proof – like trash collector.  It’s based on the classic marketing model: give people a disease and then sell them the cure.  Here’s how it works.

Sometime back in the 70s-going-on-80s we decided that people were basically miserable.  There was no empirical evidence for this, but we thought that nobody was very happy.  Personally, I think we were just suffering from a 70s hangover — but who am I?  Anyway, rather than pass this woeful state of depression on to our children, we decided to change the world.  We loaded up our kids with self-esteem and convince them that every worldly delight was within their grasp.  All they had to do was set their mind to it, and they could accomplish anything.  Nobody looked at this strategy very closely; for example, we didn’t bother giving these kids tools like self-discipline.  We preferred to emphasize attitudes like entitlement.  Regardless, most people and institutions fought the self-esteem revolution with a vengeance.  Kids were cocooned and coerced.  Nothing unpleasant ever crossed their teeny horizons and we told them over and over, that they were special little beings.   Whenever anything disagreeable raised its ugly head, the cry of “What about the children?” would echo throughout the land, and that was the end of that.  Likewise, nothing short of “excellent” was ever sufficient praise for these kids — even for the most modest efforts.  This tyranny went from toddler to teenager and for twenty years, it ruled the world.  There are still traces of it kicking around today.  Believe me, you’re taking your life in your hands if you try to get between a hovermom and her cub.

Now, fast forward to 2011.  There’s this huge segment of people in our society who are around 30 years old.  They have a modicum of higher education, a low-maintenance job, a decent income and tons of leisure time.  They are that upper middleclass backbone that keeps our society on the straight and narrow.  Unfortunately, despite all the trappings of success and genuine well being, these folks are dissatisfied.  In fact, they spend most of their time actively pissed off.  Somewhere between high school and the Home Equity Loan, the world changed out from underneath them.  Through a series of knees to the emotional groin, they discovered that the world outside their immediate circle didn’t actually think they’re anything special.  In fact, the world in general thought they were rather dim bulbs and, for the most part, took outrageous advantage of them.  They still cling together cuddling each other with daily doses of “You’re so awesome!” but, in reality, they know they aren’t.  Plus and this is what dropped the ice cream into the mud puddle — they’ve discovered that praise and applause are not automatic and accolades for adults take a hell of a lot more hard work than it ever did in high school.

On a daily basis, these people just feel trapped.  Their kids are overweight and not at all as precocious as the ones on TV.  Their spouses are preoccupied (at best) but mostly uninterested.  Their coworkers don’t care if they live or die – not really.  And they might hang out with their friends, but they never have any lifestyle-changing adventures with them.  Nobody thinks they’re the best and the brightest anymore, and gravity is starting to make them sag.  It’s a pretty bleak picture.

Let me take a minute to clarify.  This isn’t every thirty-year-old in North America, but there are a lot of them.

The stunning part of this scenario is that the whole crowd still believe they’re the centre of the universe.  They think there’s something wrong with them, and they’re looking around for a get-fixed-quick-scheme.  You and I both know this is ridiculous but for the last five years or so, there’ve been any number of books, blogs and websites written about this.  They all focus exclusively on the rude awakening the vast majority of these self-esteem babies have been suffering.  The latest hocus-pocus is something called self-compassion, a kind of Stuart Smalley “give yourself a shake” therapy.  As far as I can tell, nobody, including the proponents, has any idea what it’s supposed to do.  However, depending on who you talk to, it can mean anything from auto-induced tough love to a hot bath with candles and incense.  The only universal is the 30-somethings are buying this stuff by the carload, and nobody ever says, “Life is tough.  Get off your ass and get used to it.”

So if you’re not doing anything this week and want to make a million dollars or so, come up with a reasonable-sounding title that has “you” or “your” in it.  Fill in 200 pages with a whole pile of short chapters with words like Honesty, Evaluation, Engaging, Embracing and Empowering in them.  Then, introduce the whole mess with a Foreward that blames the parents for everything from the death of disco to the current economic recession.  Finally, finish it off with a message for the readers to indulge themselves more often because they deserve it.

You’ve got the makings of a bestseller.  But whatever you do, don’t say, “Hey, look, you spoiled brats!  You need to get over yourselves.”  That’s not what they want to hear, and they’re not going to pay for that.