February 22, 2023

Is It Time for a New Modest Proposal?

About three hundred years ago, the great Irish author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, penned (and in those days, the verb was literally true) a wicked essay that over the years has been known as “A Modest Proposal.” In it, Swift offered a solution to the problem of poverty in Ireland. He suggested that the children of the poor Irish class should be butchered and then sold as food to the wealthy English landlords. 

Of course, Swift who was a savage satirist, was not really serious. His real intention was to rail against England’s exploitation of Ireland. Still, ever since, the idea of a modest proposal has continued to appeal to thinkers with an animus against certain demographic groups.

About three hundred years after Swift’s essay first appeared, another far less distinguished author whose name will probably be forgotten within five years of his death, namely, moi-même, articulated his own version of a modest proposal. It went as follows:

For years, I have joked about a new iteration of a modest proposal. My idea was that people would live under a definite death sentence. If they survived until they had reached their three score and ten, they would be given a pill that would painlessly ease them into death. This, it seems to me, would have many advantages. First of all, it would save billions of dollars since an enormous amount of money has to be spent in the last years of people’s lives on providing them health care and hospitalization. Second, it would free up a great deal of money for younger people since no more Social Security payments or pensions would be necessary after a person reached seventy. Third, most people’s productive years are over by the time they reach seventy; the rest is mostly just waiting to die and years of illness, decrepitude and senility in store.  

Is this any way to run a navy? Do you really want to spend your “senior years” shuffling to the shuffleboard area on yet another cruise with elderly folks like yourself or making a sorry spectacle of yourself with your potbelly and ridiculous-looking Bermuda shorts tottering around on some Floridian golf course? Or worse yet, did you ever dream when young of spending your last years languishing in a nursing home among the demented and utterly forlorn, the truly wretched of the earth? (If you have ever spent time visiting an ancient loved one in one of these places, you will know what I mean.) 

Really, when you consider all this, wouldn’t it make sense to spare old people this kind of fate? After all, we weren’t meant to live to such great ages. Evolutionarily, we were designed to live only so long as to procreate, pass along our genes, and then get off the stage. Dying in one’s forties would normally allow us to accomplish all these things. Now more and more of us just hang around, are burdens to our family, and merely take up space while exhausting limited financial resources. What is the point?   

Hell, if I had died when I was seventy, both the world and I would have been better off. I wouldn’t have had to suffer the deliberating effects of my spinal stenosis. My hearing would still have been good, my vision, good enough; I still would have been able to hike, to travel, make love, and enjoy life to the fullest. I wouldn’t have to spend days as I do now when I sometimes walk about the house like a wraith, exhausted and weary beyond belief, trapped in a seemingly interminable bardo of ennui hovering between life and death. Instead of often feeling like cashing in my chips, I would have still been in my chips.

Of course, I was not really proposing anything so monstrous as the institution of widespread mandated mercy killing. I am not a Nazi! What I wrote was written with my tongue firmly lodged into my cheek. True, I had a serious intent – I was ruefully considering the plight of the elderly in our society, but I certainly wasn’t suggesting we should bump them off, however humanely.

So, you can imagine how shocked I was recently to discover that someone had stolen my idea. And worse – he seems to be entirely serious. He wants the increasingly elderly population of Japan to consider mass suicide, or to use the Japanese term for ritual suicide, mass seppuku

And he’s no flake either. He’s on the Yale faculty, and though young himself, has already had a promising career as an economist. And, no surprise, Yusuke Narita is Japanese and apparently has swiftly become something of a cult figure there.

So, is this guy really serious, and, if he is, has he begun to have a significant impact on the conversation in Japan and in other countries that now find themselves burdened with a large surplus population of the elderly? Let’s find out. Who is this Yusuke Narita and how much influence has he already exerted with his provocative views?

First of all, at 37, Narita seems to be quite a character as well as a purveyor of radical views. You can tell that’s he’s cool, not only because of his attire, but by the spectacles he wears, as you can see from this excerpt from a recent piece in The New York Times about him.

Appearing frequently on Japanese online shows in T-shirts, hoodies or casual jackets, and wearing signature eyeglasses with one round and one square lens, Dr. Narita leans into his Ivy League pedigree as he fosters a nerdy shock jock impression. He is among a few Japanese provocateurs who have found an eager audience by gleefully breaching social taboos. His Twitter bio: “The things you’re told you’re not allowed to say are usually true.”

As for his “modest proposal,” here is what he said in a 2021 interview about the burden that an increasing number of elderly and often poor Japanese citizens is imposing on a younger generation: “I feel like the only solution is pretty clear. In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?”

Of course, this shocking pronouncement – like those that our ex-President was wont to make on subjects like immigrants that no other politician would have dared to proclaim – soon caused a furor. Immediately, Narita had become a controversial figure in Japanese society and, naturally, he received a great deal of censure from the Japanese establishment. So much so that he was forced to “walk back” his statement a bit, as our own politicians like to say in order to blunt criticism of their latest gaffe. But apparently he has never actually retracted his views.  

In any case, although he is naturally reviled by many older Japanese, he has become something of a hero, even a kind of cult figure, to the younger generation of Japanese, as the Times article makes clear:

While he is virtually unknown even in academic circles in the United States, his extreme positions have helped him gain hundreds of thousands of followers on social media in Japan among frustrated youths who believe their economic progress has been held back by a gerontocratic society.

And he has already had an impact on thinking about public policy, since many lawmakers have begun to voice concern over the mounting costs required to provide pensions to the elderly and the growing number of older people now suffering from dementia.

Moreover, the culture of Japan, which traditionally venerated the old, seems to be changing. Even a decade ago, one prominent politician who is now a “power broker” in the governing Liberal party, suggested that “old people should hurry up and die.”

Also, according to the Times, last year there was a Japanese film called “Plan 75” that depicted “cheerful salespeople” wooing retirees into government-sponsored euthanasia programs.

It seems that, just as Trump was able to tap into long-suppressed resentments of various ethnic groups, Narita’s outspoken advocacy of mass suicide for the elderly reflects a simmering resentment toward Japan’s old folks who contribute little to society but drain financial resources in a country that now has one of the highest levels of public debt in the world.

The article in the Times sums things up this way:

Shocking or not, some lawmakers say Dr. Narita’s ideas are opening the door to much-needed political conversations about pension reform and changes to social welfare. “There is criticism that older people are receiving too much pension money and the young people are supporting all the old people, even those who are wealthy,” said Shun Otokita, 39, a member of the upper house of Parliament with Nippon Ishin no Kai, a right-leaning party.

In Japan, too, the times seem to be a-changing, and Narita is its Dylan.

But there is a curious coda to the Narita saga. It turns out that his mother developed an aneurism when he was nineteen. And even with insurance and government subsidy, his mother’s care took a big bite out of the apple of his own finances, to the tune of 100,000 yen a month – about $760.   

So, one wonders: Did Narita arrive at his views because he himself was resentful of how much his own mother was draining his income?

What all this brings up for me is the thought that perhaps it is indeed time to reconsider the idea of “a modest proposal” except this time for the elderly instead of poor Irish children. Perhaps when I penned (without a pen, of course) my own version of this idea, instead of thinking I was just trying to be amusing, I had proposed it seriously and then, like Narita, had used social media to broadcast it in the United States. Did I miss my chance to become a rock star for the generation of my grandchildren?

February 16, 2023

Family Album

I’m afraid I’ve run into a snag. It’s called a strained right wrist, which makes it hard to type, even when I wear a wrist band. So of course it makes it almost impossible for me to write my blogs. What to do? Sure, I know – I could dictate them, but that doesn’t work for me. My mouth is good for crooning snatches of pop songs from the wayward days of my misspent youth, but words only seem to flow from my fingers. I figured I would just have to wait and hope my wrist would recover, but then I had a Eureka moment….

About ten years ago, I brought out a little book, chiefly for my family and a few close friends, that I called “Ken’s Annotated Family Album.” It consists of some short entries about me, beginning with when I was a kid, and various other members of my immediate family, and is illustrated with photographs. Since the text is already written, I realized that I could simply paste in some of these stories for you, so that I would have to do very little typing. Of course, I would only be able to include a small selection of the excerpts from this album, but I’ve tried to pick those that I hope would interest you. So get ready to meet the family!

Actually, you’d better wait for a moment while I provide something of an introduction and context for the people you will soon be meeting and seeing.  

People under thirty might not be aware that in ancient times, say around 1970, photographs were actually stored in special oversized books, not on iPhones, called photograph albums. As someone who hails from the distant past, I, too, have about a dozen of these albums and they contain hundreds of photographs.  

Of course, with so many photographs, I have to be very selective. Naturally, the ones I’ve chosen for you mostly feature me together with some of my family, particularly my kids. However, there’s a lot about my life that you will not find in this blog, so perhaps I should say a little about that.

For example, there’s nothing about my professional life. There’s nothing about all the traveling I did when I was in the midst of my career, specializing in the study of near-death experiences. Aside from some casual allusions, there’s nothing about my love life, my affairs and most of the women who were important to me. Even most of my wives didn’t make the cut. Furthermore, I had to lop off consideration of my grandparents and grandchildren since I was mostly concerned with the period of my life when they were not or were no longer relevant. Indeed, I don’t really say much about my life after I turned forty of so. So it’s mostly about the first half of my life and the people who were most important to me then, especially my three children.

I tried to write about myself and these people mostly in a light-hearted, sometimes whimsical way – with affection and love, and, yes, a measure of possibly sentimental tenderness. But I have also written some more serious memoirs, and my kids at least can read some of those, if they wish, when I am no longer here to respond to their incredulous questions.

In the meantime, here is my offering to you, beginning with introducing you to the two women who raised me….

My Two Mothers

My Beautiful Mother

Here is an image of my mother when she was in her mid-thirties, and still a beauty (she was in fact a beauty queen when she was younger – I have some photos of her then). She is sitting in our little backyard after she, my stepfather, Ray, and I had moved into the hovel that was to be my home during the years I attended junior high. These were still the years before my mother’s sad decline, which began sometime thereafter.

I don’t know and never learned exactly what brought it on, but I do recall some conversations with her when she seemed to imply that she was very dissatisfied with and unfulfilled by my stepfather as a lover. My mother was refined; my stepfather was crude. But who could know what really went on between them? Nevertheless, whatever may have precipitated it, it was a long downward slide for her. I remember encouraging my mother to leave my stepfather – I knew she had other suitors – but she could never gather up the courage.  Maybe she was intimidated by Ray; maybe she was just too insecure and weak. But she had made her bed, so to speak, and she was destined never to leave it.

I was always close to her; we had a special bond between us. I was the repository of some of her dark secrets, but for all that, my mother remained opaque to me, a mystery to the end. Nevertheless, through my emotional intimacy with her, I learned to be sensitive to women and their sorrows. This was perhaps her greatest, if inadvertent, gift to me.  

My Other Mother

I grew up with two fathers (one mostly absent) and two mothers (my own often sleeping or otherwise indisposed). In many ways, my “real” mother was my mother’s older sister (and her protector), Mary. My mother and she were extremely close and they lived together during my early life. It was Mary, as I recall, who did most of the cooking; it was Mary who said “sit up straight, Kenny;” it was Mary who was always painfully cleaning out my ears. It was Mary who raised me; Mary to whose house and piano I escaped to when I was older and wanted to avoid my stepfather; it was Mary who shooed people away when I needed to find a quiet place to study. It was always Mary to whom I felt closest of all my relatives, who was my very favorite, and to whose house I would always first go when, as an adult, I would return to California.  

As I was told when I was older, when I was a child, I was often mistaken for Mary’s child since my mother was a brunette and I was then blond.  In many ways, I was her child.  She often told me, too, that I was her favorite (at least among my cohort of cousins, though of course her son, Cliff, came first).

When she died in 1990 at the age of 80 – the first of her sisters to go – a vital part of myself went with her.  I cannot say enough about how much I loved her and how important she was to me all my life.

Kenny As A Kid

Kenny, the Window-Gazer

Although all my earliest memories are of my father, I was always close to my mother, Ro. I suppose she was my original imago of a beautiful woman, the kind that would always attract me in later life (but then I am a man like most others, at least in that respect). Here she is in her late twenties as she went shopping in downtown Oakland. I seem to be window-gazing, but with my poor vision, still undiagnosed and uncorrected, it is problematic what I could see. Perhaps holding my mother’s hand was enough. Later in life, there were plenty of occasions when I had to hold hers.  

Kenny, the Young Patriot

At the beginning and throughout World War II, everyone was a patriot. People planted “victory gardens,” little boys like me collected “tinfoil, everyone was supposed to buy War Bonds and swell with pride when listening to Kate Smith sing “God Bless America.”

Here I am doing my flag-waving best to support our troops, looking mighty fine in my little suit at the edge of Lake Merritt in Oakland.

Ken As A Youth

My First Honeymoon

My mother got remarried in 1946 when I was ten.  I remember attending the ceremony, complete with a hoopah, and afterward my new stepfather, Ray, and my mother went off on their honeymoon – with me in tow.  Heaven knows why they took me along, but we traveled by car up to the Sonora area of California, where my grandfather (my mother’s father) then lived, and stayed in a little cluster of shacks, as they seemed to me then, called Hoyt House.  

We obviously spent some time at the nearby Stanislaus River, as my mother noted on this photograph.  When I was a kid in grammar school, I was on the chubby side, at least as I recall, but clearly by the time I had reached ten and half, I had grown quite slender and had already taken up my drinking life with soda pop.

First Love

Her name was Carolyn and I first saw her, I believe, in my chemistry class in high school. I found myself enamored and discovered where she lived – about a three or four mile walk from my home. I would sometimes walk to her house and, too shy to knock, would loiter outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of my would-be beloved. Eventually, of course, we did encounter each other there --under rather bizarre circumstances, which I will elide over here -- and became friends and then more than that.

At that time, I was a devout atheist while Carolyn was intent on becoming the first woman Presbyterian minister. We argued all the time when we weren’t kissing and making out.

This photograph was taken at our high school prom. I no longer remember who the other couple was, but looking at it now, I am struck by that nifty tie-clasp I then sported. The only thing I remember from that night was stepping on Carolyn’s feet while attempting to dance.

We remained a teenaged twosome for a couple of years, but broke up when we were both in college, at Cal, in Berkeley.

A coda: Fate brought us back together more than fifty years later. By then Carolyn was living up in Winnipeg with her husband, Peter, a philosophy professor. Since that time, we have, according to what Carolyn has told me, exchanged more than a thousand e-mail messages.  We still argue about most everything except now we have switched sides.

On the Mall at the U of M

Oddly enough, I seem to have almost no photographs of myself during my college years, either at Cal, where I was an undergraduate from 1954 to 1958, or at the University of Minnesota during the three years following, and even at UCLA during the years 1961-2, where I finished my graduate work. But here’s one, taken by a graduate student friend of mine, Frank Caro on the mall at the University of Minnesota. It was probably around 1960 or so when I sat with my recently acquired first wife, Elizabeth. I would have just turned 24 and was in the early phases of my training marriage. Alas, the wheels came off several years later under far less happy circumstances than those that were true then.

Ken Grows Up

Ken Becomes a Father

1963. What a year for me! I’ve just got my first job teaching at the University of Connecticut, I’ve just acquired my first TV, oh, and by the way, also my first daughter, Kathryn, who was born in March of that year. A few days later, on an unusually warm early spring day, I remember carrying her in my arms up the stairs to the apartment her mother, Elizabeth, and I then occupied.  What a thrill to have this most eagerly wanted child home at last.

I loved taking care of her – feeding her, bathing her, even changing her diapers. A friend and colleague at the University had dubbed her “Tiger,” and we sometimes called her that, but she was a gentle and mild babe.  Here is one of my favorite photos of her from those days where she and I are bonding. She is smiling at me, but she has made me smile ever since.

The Young Professor in a Soulful Mood

Ah, to be young again with abundant hair (though I am still grateful to have mine). When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, I came to love walking through the woods some of which surrounded our campus. This photograph seems to have been taken on one of those nearby roads called Dog Lane down which I often wandered. I believe this must have been taken in the late 60s, so I would have been in my early thirties then. My real life was yet to begin, but perhaps here I am dreaming of what was to come.

The Kids

Numero Uno Hijo

My son, David, was, in the end, a welcome, if unexpected, addition to my family. After Susan and I had got married in March of 1969, we took off on a cross-country honeymoon on our way to California where I was to spend my sabbatical leave in Berkeley. Each of us had had a daughter by a previous marriage, and when our kids met, they decided they would like to be sisters, Susan and I, with some measure of misgivings and ambivalence, which turned out to be well-warranted, decided to oblige them by marrying. The girls would join us later. This was our honeymoon and we were determined to have a ball on the way out to California.

Susan assured me that, as she had been on the pill forever, there was no chance of her getting pregnant any time soon.

Famous last words, as they say.

Dave was the product of her miscalculation, but it was one of her best since that boy turned out to be a joy and a father’s pride – but then, I am proud of all my kids.

As a boy, Dave was a charmer – so very sweet and loving.  Cool, too. This photograph shows him in his youthful exuberance. He was always breaking his big glasses during those years.  After one such mishap, he greeted his optician by saying, “Long time, no see.” A born wit. He has only got better with age.  

Father and Son

My son, Dave, was due to be born on my birthday, but the hospital didn’t induce babies on Saturday, so he didn’t emerge until two days afterward. Still, we are both Sagittarian fellas. As he grew up – and up! – we were always comparing our respective heights. Of course at first I towered over him, but eventually he caught up with me, and finally, when he became a teen-ager, I suffered a supreme parental humiliation. I, who had always been the tallest member in my family, was now dwarfed by this giant I had spawned.  

Anyway, one of these photos, shown here, was taken just before Dave and I took off on a father-and-so vacation in Virginia where we went hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Dave had no interest in hiking in those days (he preferred video games). At one point, he asked peevishly “Dad, why are hikes always up?” 

This, from a lad who would later hike over two hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail and become a marathoner. Do you think he gives me any credit? May his son exceed him in height one day!

Actually, Dave has long been happily married and has two (adopted) kids, one of whom, his son, shows promise where height is concerned and may yet exceed Dave in altitude. As for my son himself, like his father, he’s mostly worked in the field of education and now teaches English and crew at a tony school in Connecticut. He’s also become something of a gifted actor in local theatrical productions. My son, the thespian.

Speaking of which, here’s how my boy looks today. It’s as if he’s playing a character in a play by Chekhov.


I first met Elise in 1968, when she was 4 years old and I was passionately in love with one of Elise’s mother’s best friends, a beautiful married Catholic woman whom I was trying to persuade to run off with me. Susan, Elise’s mother, was then living in a squalid little flat in New York, having been abandoned by her husband and temporarily ostracized by her father who, not being Spencer Tracy, had blown a fuse when he learned that she had married and had a child by “the man who came to dinner.” Anyway, Susan was then playing the go-between for the illicit affair I was then engaged in, and would often put me up overnight before one of my assignations with the woman of my dreams who shall, for pity’s sake, be nameless here. 

I acquired temporary possession of Elise after Susan and I got married and though she continued to live with Susan after our divorce, I always had regular contact with her until she left for college – Harvard, of course.  Once she was there, however, I acquired her officially.  Elise had asked me to adopt her. But as soon as I had her for my own, I lost her. That same day, her boyfriend, who had been abroad, flew in for the occasion and took me aside. “May I have your daughter’s hand in marriage,” he asked.  Easy come, easy go. I lost a daughter, but I gained a very wealthy and generous-hearted son-in-law.   

Elise eventually moved to Texas where she has become very active in Planned Parenthood and various other social and education organizations. Most recently, she is about to become the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the school that her kids – she has three wonderful children – attended. She’s also become a business woman. Elise is just a ball of energy!

As if that isn’t enough to keep her busy, she has become very involved in Democratic politics and was a national delegate to the Democratic convention in 2008 when Obama first ran for President. She actually had met Obama with whom she became friends while they both attended Harvard Law. And here’s a photo of Elise with another one of her friends.


Kathryn’s epiphany

Kathryn and I took a cross country trip with some friends of mine in 1977 when she was fourteen. And when we reached Colorado, she finally looked up from the book she had been reading and seemed to be awestruck by the beauty of the mountains. Later that day, when we were hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park, I remember her saying, “Dad, this is where I want to live someday.”  

In any case, once she had graduated high school, she did indeed set off for Colorado in order to attend a technical school in Denver where she would learn to become an auto mechanic. It was tough adjustment for her at first, but Kathryn stuck it out and eventually achieved her goal, and then some.  

Kathryn indeed did become an auto mechanic – a girl in a man’s world – and worked for twenty years or so for Volkswagen where she was accorded much recognition for her outstanding work. During that time, she not only worked on cars, she constructed them. Below is my favorite photograph of Kathryn with a snazzy car she built from scratch. My daughter, the mechanic.

Kathryn has continued to live in Colorado ever since. She is happily married and among her many virtues, she has become very fond of and knowledgeable about many animals, and, like her father, particularly loves cats. But birds also seem to be drawn to Kathryn, as witness this photo:

The old man

Ken in the Mellow of His Life

Well, of course, this is a vague allusion to Dante, but I hope I’m not bound for a trip to the Inferno just yet. In any case, here I am having a beverage (not wine) up in the Wine Country of California where I sometimes used to venture with my girlfriend at the time, a woman named Harrie. Frankly, I mostly went for the ice cream. At least during the day. What happened at night is another matter.  Modesty forbids and all that.

So far, life has been kind to me as I approach advanced middle age.  (I’m 78 and counting – counting my blessings mainly – as I write this.) My children have all turned out well, and have shown a marked disinclination to have taken me as a role model. They are all, for example, happily married to their original spouse. None of them has trafficked in the world of psychedelics or other drugs of my youth (and early middle age). None of them has wandered into any of the outré realms of exploration that have enticed and enchanted me for so many years. They don’t even have affairs! What can I say? They have learned from me well, have they not? I can rest content.

I’m also blessed with the love of a wonderful woman, Lauren, and have more friends than I can manage. Life continues to be full of interesting projects and rewarding work. What more can I ask? I thank my forebears, my children, the women who have loved me (when they haven’t rued me) and my lucky stars.  

Here's looking at you, kid…

February 9, 2023

Another Year, Another Book

Every year, Woody Allen comes out with a new film. And lately, every year I come out with a new book, and this year is no exception. Now Woody and I who are almost exact contemporaries (he arrived on Planet Earth just twelve days before I made it here) are both 87, and it’s rumored this year will be his last film. So, too, for me. My new book is definitely my swan song. Yes, I know! I already told you that my previous book, Blogging Toward Infinity, would positively, absolutely be my last one. It seems I was premature. It’s actually this one. May I tell you just a bit about it?

The title is A Near-Death Researcher’s Notebook: What I Have Learned About Dying, Death and the Afterlife. It’s available now on Amazon for a pittance: $12.95. Here’s a bit about the book from the copy on the back cover:

Beginning with a hilarious account of the foibles and follies of a body that has expired before the author has, renowned NDE researcher, Kenneth Ring, in this collection of essays takes the reader on an exhilarating ride on the train whose destination is death – yet the journey is anything but morbid or depressing. On the contrary, in these genial, entertaining, and often witty essays, Ring invites us to ponder not just the hardships of facing death (he does not shy away from the anguish of dying), but what we can learn about how to live fully before we die. He even considers ways to ease the transition into death by the use of psychedelics. But much of the book distills what Ring has learned from his long career of researching near-death experiences, and the promise they hold out for us of a life beyond this one.
Although Ring can write with a light touch, the book also grapples with serious issues, such as the ethics of the right-to-die movement, the epidemic of loneliness in modern American life, and the views of various literary and other writers who feel, unlike Ring, that life is a dead end and the idea of an afterlife is pure fantasy. Finally, you will find in some of these essays deeply moving stories of people dealing with death that may make you cry. And yet, the book leaves one feeling upbeat and hopeful about life. Hop on the train and enjoy the ride – while you’re still alive!

Does all this sound familiar? Yes, it should because all I did for this book was to cull some of my best essays over the past few years and collect them into a new volume so that people could read my deathless prose about death all in one place. Most of you, I hope, have already read some or maybe most of these essays, so obviously you’re not going to be interested to pay money when you’ve already read them for free. Although wasn’t it Henry Thoreau who said that a good essay was worth reading twice? Well, actually no. I believe that was me, though whether I was referring to Thoreau’s essays or mine, I no longer remember.  Well, never mind.

What you might remember is that when my previous book was published, I wrote a blog called Advertisements for Myself, asking for your help to publicize the book or even to buy it. Well, I’m back with the same request here, so I might as well just paste in a couple paragraphs of that blog here. 

I’m not just asking you to consider buying my book, though perhaps some of you will, or, if you do, whether you would be kind enough to write a review and post it on Amazon, which would be nice and appreciated. No, I would like to ask you another favor, if you’d consent to become a part of my coalition of the willing.

You see, although I don’t expect to retire on the royalties from the sale of this book, I would like to avoid ending my life as a literary failure. So, to avoid that sorry fate, since I am not able to use a professional publicist to toot the horn for my book, I’m hoping that some of you would be willing to post something about this book on your Facebook page or other social media that you use. Please don’t do this if you don’t feel comfortable doing so. In which case, just don’t expect to be invited to my next garden party.

Oh, before I leave you to better things, would you like to view my whimsical cover? Here it is:

Just a last word before I sign off. This book is actually best read before you die so you can be better prepared for your own death, in the unlikely event that you will have to undergo it someday. If you wait until after you die, it’ll be too late to do you any good. And I’ll lose any royalties as well.

As for me, all I have to do now is to wait for Woody’s last film.  See you at the movies…. 

February 1, 2023

What’s Wrong with Men?

In a word, “women.” 

In my day, back in the day, there was often talk of “the war between the sexes.” Well, if there were such a war today, women would be winning it, hands down. By virtually every metric, women are now doing better, often much better, than men, and the disparity seems to be growing. Moreover, this is not just true for the United States, but is generally the case in developed countries around the world.

I learned all this from a book I am currently reading entitled, Of Boys and Men, by a distinguished social scientist named Richard V. Reeves. Of course, I’m not a social scientist myself, but I was originally a social psychologist by training and worked in that field until I became involved in near-death studies. So I have a kind of residual interest in matters sociological, even if I haven’t spent any time in recent years delving into that domain. But here, at least, we can dig into Reeves’s book to learn some basic facts about why men these days seem to suffer from a deficit of hope and purpose.

Reeves begins his book with a chapter called “Girls Rule.”  It’s all about the gender gap in education. Here are some of the points Reeves brings out in that chapter.

In the space of just a few decades, girls and women have not just caught up with boys and men in the classroom – they have blown right past them.

That’s true in college, too:

In the U.S…. the 2020 decline in college enrollment was seven times greater for male than for female students.

Boys, according to Reeves, also struggle more with online learning. They seem to lack the motivation that girls have to “stick with the program,” literally. Apparently, they’d rather play video games or just goof off.

Boys are 50% percent more likely than girls to fail at all three school subjects: math, reading and science.

Not surprisingly, boys are less likely than girls to graduate from high school.

These differences in educational attainment are evident in grammar school, and continue all the way through college. Girls and women just do better.  

For now, I’ll just mention one last set of facts from this chapter where it really begins to make a huge difference – graduation from college and post-college education.

In the U.S., 57% of bachelor’s degrees are now awarded to women…. Women also receive the majority of law degrees, up from about one in twenty in 1970. [Furthermore,] in 2020, the law review at every one of the top sixteen law schools had a woman as editor-in-chief.

The same stats are true for advanced degrees in other fields, such as dentistry and medicine, where there have been huge jumps in favor of women.  

You get the picture: Girls rule, and, if this were a track meet, boys and men would be falling further and further behind.

But for now, let’s consider another feature of modern life that seems to have caused men to lose their foothold on what used to be solid ground for them: the women’s movement.

When exactly fifty years ago, Betty Friedan wrote her bombshell, The Feminine Mystique, the salvo that launched the women’s liberation movement, men quickly realized that they had reason to feel threatened. The king was about to be displaced from his throne, and although the queen would not replace him, his hitherto undisputed rule would gradually become history. As women became more independent and financially self-sufficient, men found themselves in existential shock, in danger of becoming de trop, a vestigial relic in an institution, marriage, where formerly they had reigned supreme.

Between men and women, the economic balance has clearly shifted in the direction of women, and for husbands this is often bad enough news, but it is even worse for men who do not live with women whether they are married to them or not, as Reeves points out.

Economically independent women can now flourish whether they are wives or not. Wifeless men, by contrast, are often a mess. Compared to married men, their health is worse, their employment rates are lower, and their social networks are weaker. Drug-related deaths among never-married men more than doubled in a decade from 2010. Divorce, now twice as likely to be initiated by wives as husbands, is psychologically harder on men than it is on women. One of the great revelations of feminism may turn out to be that men need women more than women need men. 

Indeed, as another observer acidly observed in the jargon of economics, “the underlying shift is toward the decreasing marginal utility of males.” To which Reeves dryly remarks, “True. But, ouch.”

How come? Why are men, even in marriage, increasingly dispensable or irrelevant? Mainly, it seems, because the traditional male role as the family’s breadwinner and “head of the family,” has been undermined by the economic independence of women. In contrast to women’s traditional role as housewife and mother, many women now work, and quite a few women earn more than the husbands. Over 40% of women are now the main breadwinner in their families. As a result, many men are feeling displaced. Reeves again: “Having lost their status as breadwinners and resident fathers, many men find themselves a little lost.” So they retreat to the couch to swill their beer and watch football or perhaps sneak off to their hideaway to watch a little porn.

Of course, I am exaggerating a bit here, but the general trend seems clear. In many families, the traditional male role has been diminished. In a phrase that was popularized by the feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Ouch again.

Reading about how much and how rapidly family life, at least in America, has changed, one comes away with the impression that women often are now the resourceful ones in a marriage whereas men are, well, perhaps a little feckless. 

If things are unsettling and confusing for men on the home front, what about in the work place? Unfortunately, even there the trend line is not encouraging for men. Of course top executives, predominantly still men, are doing well, and in some ways, better than ever. But what about your average Joe? For him, recent developments have proven to be additional sources of such stress that many men, even young men, have already dropped out of the labor market and are no longer looking for work. Fifty years ago, 97% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were working. Now almost ten percent aren’t. Why not?

Several factors seem to be at play here. One is certainly the increasing use of automation and robotics, making many men who can’t adapt to these changes “redundant.” Free trade policies have also hurt. For example, Chinese imports have had a devastating effect on manufacturing jobs, which mostly employed men. It’s estimated that they led to the loss of between two and three million jobs. As a result, one in three men with only a high school education are out of the work force. And as for young men, some scholars think that the improvement in video-game quality could account for much of the especially troubling decline for this age group.  

These changes, however, have not had the same deleterious effect on women because rather than having to work with machines that have become automated, they tend to work in such fields as health care, personal services and education. 

Psychologically, the lot of many working men has become much more onerous. Many have had to drop out because of disabilities – fully a third of non-workers reported disabilities in 2016. Moreover, nearly half of non-working men had to resort to pain medication on a daily basis, including opioids, in recent years. And what do men do when they detach from work? An economist named Nicholas Eberstadt has looked into this. This is what he reports:

Most of these hours of free time are spent watching screens rather than doing household labor or caring for family members. Instead of socializing more, men without work are even less involved in their communities than those with jobs. 

Finally, here is one really astonishing fact that Reeves made me aware of. Because of automation and robotics, even those men still working are losing muscle strength.

One study of grip strength … shows a sharp decline among men. Meanwhile, and perhaps more surprisingly, women are getting physically stronger. In 1985, the average man in his early 30s could squeeze your hand with about thirty pounds more force than a similarly aged woman. Today, their grip strength is about the same.

And men may be losing more than muscle strength. According to one well known study, over the past 50 years, human sperm counts appear to have fallen by more than 50% around the globe.

Although these findings are controversial and subject to various interpretations, if the findings are confirmed and the decline continues, researchers say it would also be a harbinger of declining health in men in general, since semen quality can be an important marker of overall health.

Gadzooks! What’s happening to men?

I have some speculations to offer. I think for a concatenation of reasons, many men are just giving up, losing hope, and no longer are able to cope with the demands on modern life. In the end, I think it is pushing increasing numbers of men to the brink of an existential abyss. As one researcher commented after interviewing men struggling with addiction and depression, “the more common complaint was something vaguer – a quiet desperation that … seemed to stem from a gnawing sense of purposelessness.”


Let’s consider the evidence for what has come to be called “deaths of despair.” This term is meant to refer to deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism. As is now well known, this is particularly concerning for the cohort of middle-aged, less-educated white men. Some scholars who specialize in this area of research summarize it this way:

The declining economic fortunes in the working class have combined with various forms of social breakdown – especially in family life – to create patterns of “cumulative disadvantage,” or, to put it more bluntly, “the collapse of the white working class.”   

Overall, deaths of despair are almost three times greater for men than women.

To take some specifics, men are much more likely to commit suicide than women. In the U.S., suicide rates have risen fastest among middle-aged men, but there has recently been a big increase in suicides among adolescents as well. 

Researchers find that men in particular feel the loss not only of income, but dignity that accompany a good job. “Lonely and troubled, they self-medicated with alcohol or drugs, and they accumulated criminal records that left them less employable and less marriageable.”

And then there are the opioids, such as Fentanyl, which as most people now know, has been responsible for many deaths, especially in the last decade, due to opioid overdoses. But even if they don’t induce death, there is no doubt that over the last twenty years or so, they have contributed to a massive decrease among employment for men. One economist estimates that opioids are responsible for as much as almost half (43%) of the drop in male employment during this period.

No wonder that if you are in physical or emotional pain, and have lost your way, as many men have, you will try to assuage your pain by resorting to opioids, and find not just find temporary surcease from your pain, but from life as well.

What exacerbates the problems of adaptation to a changing world for many troubled men is their tendency to avoid seeking help from friends or professionals. And because they often have disconnected from or are only loosely tethered to family and religious institutions, they tend to find themselves alone.

Studies show that men have fewer friends than women, and this trend has increased in recent years. Thirty years ago, only 3% of men had no close friends; now 15% of men don’t. As Reeves notes, “Men on their own tend to be men alone.” Here he refers to John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men, where a character says, “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody … I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

Women don’t seem to have this problem, certainly not to this extent. They deal much better than men when a marriage breaks up because they usually can count on a network of friends and family for emotional support.

Men, it seems, would rather go a bar and drink.

This is a worrisome trend. As one researcher who has looked into the tendency for men to self-isolate comments: “We have a large number of people [in the United States] in their early 20s living in the basement   bedroom. Oftentimes it is younger men. Struggling with work. Struggling with launching.”

Men without connections, when they sit with their grievances, are not just lonely and sad. They can be dangerous.

These days in America, as we all know, we live in an age of frequent mass murders. They occur so often now, we have grown almost inured to them, but as an old-timer, I can assure you it never used to be this way. And who commits these murders?


I’ve never encountered much discussion of this, but about 98% of these mass murders are perpetrated by men, men who are nursing grievances or are just in despair. Sure, some of them are mentally ill; others hate certain racial or ethnic groups; some may be seeking vengeance against fellow employees or their bosses; some are obviously fueled by the poison of white supremacy. But think: Surely these men must know that they will be killed after they go on a murderous rampage, or, if not killed, will be seriously wounded. Or even if they surrender, they know they will be locked up effectively forever. So why do they do it?   

Because they no longer want to live, and before they die, they want to avenge themselves against a world that no longer has a place for them. And it keeps happening, more and more, with no end in sight.

Given how difficult life is for many men now, perhaps we should not be surprised that some men (and boys) can no longer face the prospect of living in a world that shuns, bullies or even reviles them. Loneliness, too, can cause one to become a killer.

Hatred of the other leads to violence and especially for relatively poorly educated white men. Such men may also feel threatened by those who don’t look like them and long for the restoration of an America that never was. No wonder America seems to have gone off the rails.


Or, more fairly, some men. Now, clearly, the second sex. Simone de Beauvoir would write a different sort of book were she to write today. 

But wait, even this isn’t fair to men. Except for their proclivity for violence and mayhem, it’s not really their fault. (Studies show that males are more physically aggressive in all cultures and these differences manifest by the time boys are 17 months old. You can’t fault them for their biology either.)  But apart from that, it’s not really that there’s anything inherently wrong with men. The problems they face in today’s society are mainly structural, not psychological.

During the Great Depression, when many millions of men lost their jobs, was it their fault? Of course not. Just as the world is not built for lefthanders, so the modern world has made life difficult for many men. They need our help and compassion, not our harsh judgment.

And to end on a hopeful note, I know that Reeves and many other policy wonks have worked up many good ideas for how to help men to become the kind of men who could, in time, begin to flourish again in America.  

All that is in the second part of his book, which I have yet to read. I hope this blog may induce you to get ahold of his book to see how we might one day begin to create a better world for both men and women. God knows, we can’t wait for a deus ex machina to spring from the wings to rescue men from their fraught and lonely lives. We will have to do it ourselves, perhaps with a little help from – women.