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It's always upsetting when you realize a lot of people are younger than you are. Really, everyone no longer in elementary, junior high, or high school should be older than I am. There are certain kinds of people, though, whose youthfulness is especially egregious.

1) Doctors
Doctors should not be younger than I am. Doctors, from what I know of them from 1990s television, spend approximately 25 years in school, and then an additional 56 years as residents. They spend years and years falling in love with one another, having sex in closets, developing tragic friendships with people who are dying, and fighting off knife-wielding attackers in the emergency room before they become actual doctors. So the fact that every specialist I see looks at me appraisingly from eyes that never appraised the 1980s is upsetting and wrong and generally unacceptable.

2) Newscasters
Newscasters should not be younger than I am. Sure, the ones who look a little bit like high-class prostitutes or rich men's mistresses - they can be youthful (in that soon-to-overripe kind of way). But the ones who've cut their call-girl hair and developed those immovable hair hats should not be younger than I am. They are supposed to give the impression of gravely delivering grave news they don't fully understand because they're newscasters, not journalists, god dammit, and they're supposed to do so using lips that existed prior to the year 1990.

3) Mothers in telephone/internet provider commercials
Actresses playing mothers in telephone/ internet provider commercials should not be younger than I am. You know the ones I mean - they're often ethically ambiguous, not actively attractive, but not noticeably unattractive, and they are enviable because they are lucky enough to have husbands who don't know how to use the television remote and children who have attitudes and inappropriate boyfriends. They look both despairing ("That's a remote, you darling, hapless man!") and smug ("I have a husband, children and a television, you darling, hapless spinster!"), and as of a couple of years ago, they started looking about ten years younger than I am.

Thank God I'm not a successful professional or a contented family woman, or I'd be surrounded by such upstarts all the time.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.

 
 

I recently received the following letter from a reader:

I am only two years short of being an official senior. My fingers are arthritic and gnarly. My hair is thinning. I have one or two chronic illnesses. My best friend is dying of cancer. My old house has never been renovated and it is falling apart. My dog is very farty. I don't have any savings. Do you think granite countertops would give me a much needed boost? If so, do you know where can I find someone who would be willing to pay for my new countertops in exchange for my "friendship" (wink. wink.), or something else that I can afford to swap (maybe the farty dog????)?

This letter presents me with an unusual challenge. For the most part, I spend my time transforming seemingly insignificant things into promises of future disappointments, disillusionments, and tragedies. I focus on how one unimportant decision can result in totally unintended and appalling consequences, or how one stupid, selfish butterfly in Brazil can flap its stupid, selfish, flappable wings and cause me to make an unimportant decision that then results in totally unintended and appalling consequences.

What I find it difficult to do is to respond in a flip, glib, or hyperbolically pessimistic way to someone already well aware of life's hazards and griefs. It's the people who burble on about how you should always be positive and how I should really read The Secret I'd like to trick into watching anything by Ingmar Bergman, followed by anything by Lars von Trier, followed by Up

So, because I can't make snarky, negative comments about much of this, and telling someone her life might be really hard at the moment, but her sense of humour and her use of "farty dog" in such a manner as to make it sound like a euphemism for something naughty and distressing should really be a great source of comfort is trite and unconvincing, I'll focus on the one thing I can in good conscience catastrophize: the suggestion of exchanging sex for kitchen renovations.

It's entirely possible that granite countertops would bring you a much-needed and well-deserved boost. I also think it's entirely possible you could find someone who'd provide you with some countertops free of charge if you subjected him to your feminine wiles. The problem is, such a man would undoubtedly be either a) a dangerous pervert, or b) desperately lonely and vulnerable and dull and interested in you for more than your wiles. Either way, you'd find yourself resenting those granite countertops that initially promised so much pleasure and delight.

I have found, though, that feeling smugly superior to other people can also inspire sensations of pleasure and delight. So I recommend the following: visit the houses of people you know who have beautifully-renovated kitchens and bulging savings accounts. Then, concentrate on how boring they are, how much less funny than you they are, and, if they leave the kitchen for a moment, encourage your dog to fart on their counter.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.

 
 
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Vladimir Nabokov was so much smarter than you are. He was so much smarter than you are, he didn't just school you in literature; he also put you to shame in lepidoptery. 

That's right. He managed to write Lolita and to establish himself as an authority on butterflies. Obviously, being really good at two things is greedy and unnecessary, and I'd be consumed by distaste and embarrassed on his behalf if I weren't still quivering with an intense (and, obviously, unconsummated) passion for Pale Fire

"...in a speculative moment in 1945," writes Carl Zimmer in The New York Times, "[Nabokov] came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves."

"Few professional lepidopterists," Zimmer continues, "took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right."

He has now impressive literary and scientific reputations. Most people will never have either, and are forced to be content with being able to a) occasionally finish a crossword puzzle in one of those newspapers you get free on the subway and b) remember five of the 118 (had to look that up) elements in the periodic table.

However, it's worthwhile noting that Nabokov's theory about the Polyommatus blues was only tested because a Harvard biology professor (Dr. Pierce - let's give her her due) began reviewing his work while preparing an exhibit in honour of his 100th birthday. So even if you do, say, manage to be an inspired lepidopterist, it's entirely possible your claims will never be validated during your lifetime and that you'll never be famous enough in any other discipline for Harvard professors to reevaluate those claims after you're dead.


Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.


 
 
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Now that the rich, rewarding, and spiritual experience that is Christmas has passed away, leaving only bulging, exhaustion, and garbage in its wake to remind us it ever was, it's time for New Year's.

There was a time when New Year's caused me a great deal of anxiety. When I was young, and interested in noise and glamour, or rather, interested in attractive and fashionable people thinking that I was interested in noise and glamour. Now that I have accepted that I am not glamorous and have seen that many of those same people are aging badly, I am more reconciled to that formerly much-dreaded eve. Now I see good friends and eat cheese until my enjoyment of those good friends and good cheeses renders me unconscious. 

The other reason I no longer dread New Year's Eve in particular is that I have accepted that as every day brings us closer to death and offers the opportunity for promises that will never be fulfilled, there's nothing all that special about December 31st. Why feel let down by yourself and by this life that so soon will be over only once a year when there are 364 other days to play with?


Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.
 
 
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We are the first generation of Facebook users. Even if you refuse to use Facebook because you have, unaccountably, no interest in discovering whether your grade-six crush got fat, you know people who do use it (which means you can just use their accounts to check up on that girl who told you your one-act play sucked in grade twelve without appearing to compromise your anti-Facebook stand). 

Some of you even have to suffer through drawing-room-farce-like internet antics because your parents have gotten themselves Facebook accounts. They start friending all of your friends and then asking why you look like such a slut in all those photographs.

That's all very well, but what's going to happen as we age (which we will, alas, insist on doing)? Facebook will undoubtedly prove to be a great comfort to many older people because it will allow them to remain in casual contact with friends once they're no longer able to go out because they're so completely infirm. It will mean, however, that it will be impossible to keep using that one flattering photograph from your 20s because you'll be undeniably in your 80s and it would just be embarrassing.  

And if you're morbid, which is the way all right-thinking people should be, you'll already have considered things like which of the people you know will die first. Everyone you know, every single person you know, will die eventually, but in what order will they do so? Because we're the first generation of Facebook users, the people who receive memorials on the site tend to be ones who've died tragically and prematurely. But as they years pass, all those with Facebook profiles will die. 

What will happen to the Facebook profiles of people who've died? For the first while, they'll probably be makeshift memorials. People they knew will post on their walls and express sadness. But after the initial shock? After the mourning period has passed? Will Facebook keep those profiles up or will they be made to disappear? If they remain visible to others, we will find ourselves with a virtual graveyard. Instead of gravestones, we'll have profile pics and an archive of posts about parties and obscure political movements. Our children and grandchildren, instead of just searching Facebook for lost flames, will use it as a genealogical resource, combing it for insight into their forebears. 

And then when whatever's better than the internet is invented and all the kids are accessing it through cyborg-like attachments implanted in their flesh, a few nerdy types will use computers to look up Facebook to find photos of their great-great-grandmothers much as researchers today use microfiche to scan old newspapers for items about ancestors. 

I, for one, am going to start being even more careful about looking svelte in the photos I post to my profile. After all, it's possible that profile will one day be the property of posterity.




Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HEREI will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.
 
 
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As anyone who's ever read this site (or run into me casually at a dinner party) knows, I'm terrified of dying. It doesn't matter how much I try to imagine it's like sleep, or like the time before I was born - it scares the crap out of me (as do aging, penury, the limitless expanse of space, any limited expanse of space, and Lloyd Robertson).

However, because I don't like to play favourites, not dying scares the crap out of me as well. It would be kind of like not ever having to sleep. There would be no end. There would be rampant overpopulation. There would probably be no really meaningful vows of marriage. 

Besides, immortality might not mean no death; it might just mean no natural death. If science devised a way to prevent aging and inevitable death, one would not be guaranteed an endless life. Imagine living in society that has banished death by natural causes and then one day getting hit by a car. Well, you say, maybe medicine can now regrow human beings from tiny strands of DNA (my knowledge of science, admittedly, is shaky). Emergency personnel could drag you from a fiery wreck and reconstitute you. Undoubtedly, though, there would be some unfortunate people who would be murdered and then buried. Or otherwise hidden. Really mean or really crazy people would find some way to make sure that dead people never came back. And if you were in a position to live forever, your chances of meeting someone who'd want to kill and bury you would certainly increase exponentially.

It's like any vampire movie. In any vampire movie, a vampire dies. Often many vampires die. Some lucky and now soulless individual thinks "well, it's immortality for me now" and then before two hours have elapsed, he or she has been staked. From immortality to dust. Imagine being immortal and then getting staked by some smart-talking upstart four-foot-tall high-school student who used to cheerlead.

But maybe knowing you were immortal, even if you could be killed by decapitation, would at least make you less afraid because there'd be a chance, at least a chance, that you'd sidestep death. Or maybe it would make you more afraid, because there'd seem to be so much more to lose.

And if death is ever vanquished, there will be a number of poor bastards who expire the day before. I frequently think about the young men who were killed on the last days of the First or Second World Wars. So close. And I fully expect that I will pop off moments before the eternal life serum is unveiled.
Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HEREI will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.


 
 
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Dear Catastrophizer -
A concerned query: is it possible that pessimism could be seen as merelyapotropaic --i.e., unconsciously intended to ward off evil by imagining the worst (whereas optimism could be seen to be hubristic--i.e., asking for it...)?

It's absolutely and entirely possible. In fact, I think it might be unavoidable, especially now that I know it has such an impressive name. All the kids will be doing it ("Johnny, come down from your room right now and stop being so merelyapotropaic!").


It's also something that must be guarded against. Catastrophizers must sincerely and unremittingly expect the worst. They must not go unconsciously doing anything in a doomed attempt to safeguard themselves. No amount of negative thinking can protect you from all the terrible things that will undoubtedly happen to you.

If you wish to remind yourself that the worst really is bound to happen, just follow the following simple steps:

1) Watch any movie by Bergman.
2) Drink a pot of coffee.
3) Go to bed and cuddle up with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych.
4) Remind yourself repeatedly that while optimists and pessimists may disagree over the likelihood you'll be killed in a plane crash or struck by lightning while falling from the 23rd story of a high-rise and suffering from small pox, no one, no one can argue that you're not going to die. Nope. Even if you miss every car crash and disease, you'll be dying at some point. You will no longer BE. Of course, it's also possible that your self-awareness will be compromised by senility before you die, so that might take the edge off.
5) Sweet dreams.

It's in fact imperative you do this, even if you are a devoted and dutiful Catastrophizer. As any PBS special or old person will tell you, our culture tries desperately to deny the fact that we're all going to die. We try to hide our wrinkles and our old people as best we can. We obsess over life-prolonging treatments and diets as though a acai-berry smoothie will cancel out mortality altogether. We avoid confronting other people's deaths by natural causes by, as I said before, shuffling off our elderly to old-person ghettos (unless they're wealthy, in which case they may be lonely and un-visited, but they at least get to play golf on a Wii). 

Our popular culture provides us with no memento mori art. We have Beckett's Pozzo saying, "We give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" in Waiting for Godot, but who reads that past college? Who actually reads that in college? 

It's possible there will be more open discussion about everyone dying when the Baby Boomers get even closer to it. If they haven't already, they will soon be realizing that their generation is going to be dying en masse in the very near future. 

And unless or until you have a human skull to stare at, keep this idea in mind: you won't be far behind. 

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HEREI will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough. Also, I'm not very good at copy-editing, so if something looks wrong, it was put there by accident.
 
 
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I have received my second reader question! From someone who is not in the least related to me! Read on:

Let's say you're the parent of a very successful catastrophizer--should you feel pride, because so much of you lives on in a new generation? Or sadness and regret because your offspring has arguably been infected by your own congenital and over-arching pessimism?

      -
Anonynomous Individual Not 
        Responsible for Fathering the
        Catastrophizer


Before going any further with this answer, I should make one thing very clear: you should always feel sadness and regret. Very occasionally, you may allow yourself to feel pride, or joy, or elation, but only because those sensations will add a certain piquancy to your subsequent feelings of sadness and regret. Don't be concerned about having to force the return of the sadness and regret; they will come back without much prodding because life is full of things that cause them.

Feeling pride that part of you lives on in the next generation can quite easily be made to result in profound depression (although all things, obviously, can be made to result in profound depression). First of all, that pride is necessarily bound up in the fact that you yourself will die, a fact which is likely to be interpreted as a downer. The individual in whom your qualities (fine ones, I will admit) will live on will also die, possibly without issue. Even if that individual were to produce offspring, those offspring would eventually die, and so on. Even if you belonged to a family that regularly produced progeny, all of whom inherited your qualities, remember that the world itself will most likely shrivel up and disappear at some point in the vast expanse of future time. Your pride will, one way or another, be short-lived.

You should absolutely believe that it is because of your style of parenting/doomed genetic bequest that your child has developed catastrophizing tendencies, because as you've indicated, that line of thought will undoubtedly produce more sadness and regret. However, if you were lucky/unfortunate enough to produce an even vaguely observant child, that child, one way or another, would have grown up catastrophically. The beige and brown Ford Fairmont had nothing to do with it.

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.

POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.

 
 
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If death were an encounter with an aquatic creature, which one would it be? I tend to think it would have something to do with a member of the cephalopod family, but for the purposes of this post, I am providing myself and you with only two choices: shark or dolphin.

I'm not going to do anything original or creative with these options. As such, the shark is the Bad (BLOOD IN THE WATER) One, and the Dolphin is the Good ("Pardon me, but does your ship need saving?") One.

So which one will you meet when death Comes For You? Obviously, it depends on whom you're going about asking. Those without belief will unerringly go for the shark. It's vicious. It's unerring. It's kind of cool. It will eat you without compunction and then go off to find a momentarily unguarded cephalopod and eat that as well. When death is an encounter with a shark, it means nothingness, extinction, no one being able to hear you scream if you were able to scream anymore which you emphatically are not.

And then you have the dolphin. Ah, the dolphin. Super-intelligent, but somehow not cool because of all the tween girls and "spiritual" adults with dolphin tattoos and necklaces. The dolphin death people are those with a belief in some kind of benevolent post-death experience. You run into the dolphin (death, in this analogy - follow closely, won't you?) and it greets you with smiles (really not a smile, just a physiological characteristic, but in this analogy, it's a smile) and friendly guidance. "Come with me," it says. "I'm like the boats at the end of Lord of the Rings. I will take you to another country. I will not eat you up like that son of a bitch Shark."


So which death scenario is correct? Do we believe in the cool, sharky atheists, or the friendly pious dolphins?

I believe in neither. Because both are based on some kind of faith. If we have a problem in mathematics, we can go and see the best mathematician and he (field still largely dominated by men, alas) will either give you the answer or tell you to get the hell out of his cramped bungalow. Ditto business (except for a far larger house)...English literature (although all answers will be provisional and totally unhelpful)...medicine (actually, still many advances to be made, but my point is that advances CAN be made)...but have a question about death, and where can you go? Whom can you ask? 

"Oh, see a priest," someone would undoubtedly say. And the priest would tell you what he (field still largely dominated by men) really BELIEVES will happen. "Oh, see an atheist with a book on the New York Times bestseller list," someone else would undoubtedly say. And the atheist would tell you what he (it's either Hitchens or Dawkins) really BELIEVES will happen. They don't know anything. Both belief systems are BELIEF systems. There is not an expert in the world who can give you any real insight into death. The smartest people who have ever lived would be unable to help us because they are either alive and therefore cannot research the subject, or they are dead and can't publish the research. 

So choose: shark or dolphin. You have a 50/50 chance of being something close to correct. Or do what I do and choose neither. That way, you can spend the rest of your life haunted by your own ignorance and the malign mysteries of the world. 

Send the Catastrophizer your requests for advice and/or rationalizations using the form conveniently provided HERE. I will publish my responses on the THE CATASTROPHIZER page.


POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.


 
 
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I am going to include a whole, unexpurgated poem below (but in tiny font, so that it seems slightly less important than my writing and so that it doesn't make this post look excessively long), both because it helps to establish my intellectual credibility and because it's the complete darn poem that scares me so much. Here it is:

Aubade - Philip Larkin

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.


The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Allow me to summarize the poem: we are all going to die. Everyone claims to know this, but if everyone really knew this, wouldn't everyone be rushing about, grabbing everyone else by the shoulders and crying: "Oh my God, we're all going to die!"

We spend so much time worrying about ways in which we can die prematurely. What if we are trapped on this sinking ship? What if we become inside-tummy-friends with that peckish shark? What if this monorail is unstable? We concentrate so much on potentially avoidable disasters that we forget that even if we escape that ship, out-swim that shark (highly unlikely, by the way), travel safely on that monorail, we are headed for death nonetheless.

Have you seen
Up? Don't. It's one of the most genuinely wrenching films ever made. In it, and this is in the first five minutes so I'm not really giving that much away, two people who love one another manage to avoid dying "too soon", spend a great deal of time together, and love one another faithfully and truly for many years. Until they are very old. What happens when we are old? Even if we managed to sidestep the scourge of the flesh-eating disease in our youth? We die. So death happens to one member of this couple, and do you think it's perfectly fine because they are old and have had "good lives"? No. This is one of the few films that depicts a romance between people who are now old, and it indicates that loss doesn't get any easier. 

Now I feel low. But that's how I felt when I began this, so I suppose I shouldn't be astonished. But wait...did I mention that Up also features a genuinely adorable dog? Who talks like a person? That's something.
POLITE DISCLAIMER: This site is intended for entertainment purposes only. If you are not entertained, fair enough.