Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sniping about American Sniper

American Sniper, meet American actor. 
Mrs. Mercurious and I are obsessed movie-goers—so much so that we make every attempt to see every Oscar nominated film each year, even the obscure foreign films,  documentaries, and short films. So we have of course seen American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood-directed movie that has earned nominations both as best picture and for Bradley Cooper as actor in the title role.

Ever since seeing it on opening weekend, I've been vaguely troubled by uneasiness about the movie, for reasons that haven't been entirely clear to me. I've chalked it up to a kind of viewer's guilt—although I'd like to be a peace-loving pacifist, I found the movie exciting and well made, and like most viewers found myself rooting for a character who is an unabashed and unapologetic warrior with a prodigious number of notches on the stock of his McMillan TAC 338 rifle. My uneasiness was perhaps due my own internal conflict over rooting for a character whose actions have been pretty cold blooded.

But upon recently reading the source biography upon which the movie is based—the American Sniper book by Chris Kyle himself—I've a better understanding on why I have conflicting feelings about the film. It has more to do, I think, with the inappropriate or misplaced creative license Eastwood brings to the story.

Most of you know the story behind the book and movie. The title character, Chris Kyle, is a Navy-trained sniper with a certified kill total of more than 160 during several tours of duty in Iraq (there may be considerably more kills that aren't verified).  Well after the book was published, Kyle was murdered by a disturbed veteran at a shooting range (the trial of this fellow is just now underway). A variety of other controversies surrounding Kyle have come to light in the years since the book was published.

What is startling about the book is the dearth of self-awareness and critical thought on the part of Kyle himself. This is quite simply a memoir recounting his most dramatic kills, with not much in the way of political or moral consideration or self reflection.  Kyle is a fairly flat human being as he self-portrays himself with substantial bravado. Yet beyond his self-portrayal, there must of course be a man of complicated nature. In a self-proclaimed redneck who boasts 200 sniper kills (about 160 of which are confirmed by the Department of Defense) there must be more than meets the eye. What in the world drives such a person?  How do they come to terms with such a duty? Can you, for example, imagine yourself drawing bead through scope of a high-powered sniper rifle on an unsuspecting person, then squeezing the trigger and watching the explosion of blood?  160 times?

It is very, very hard to defend this guy.
But Jesse Ventura, former pro wrester,
state governor, and terrible actor,
was truly  and illegally
maligned by Chris Kyle. 
When seen outside the context of his first person biography, Kyle turns out to be an interesting character, prone to telling self-aggrandizing tall tales about himself. Most notable is the claim of beating up Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler and Navy Seal himself, after Ventura bad-mouths Navy Seals in an episode in a bar. This never happened, and Ventura won a civil suit against Kyle's estate because of the lie. In another instance, Kyle invented an episode in which he killed two would-be carjackers in Texas, saying that authorities looked the other way in deference to Kyle's status as folk hero. That episode, too, seems to have never occurred.

One can only wonder what drives a character who has already been documented as a bona-fide military hero to then invent more fictional events to further expand his legend. It suggests a substantial level of insecurity. And this is a man, after all, so in love with war and killing and the subsequent hero-worship it earned him, that he ignored his family to return to Iraq several times. Now that is a complicated man.

Cut to the movie itself, where Eastwood has chosen to focus on, and even exaggerate, the heroic aspects of Kyle's view of himself, and to even create heroic explanations that aren't supported by the book itself.

The director could well have chosen a more objective portray of the full complexity of the American Sniper, including the warts and darkness, but instead has chosen to be pretty much true to the auto-biography, even exaggerating minor events into big ones, and treating the character with an excess of compassion (the evidence of post traumatic stress isn't really visible in the book). His desertion of his family is portrayed as Kyle simply being more obsessed with protecting fellow soldiers. An equally plausible explanation is that the guy simply liked combat.  In fact, that's more the message you're left with after reading the book. ("I like war," Kyle acknowledges.)

It would have been a very, very interesting movie had it objectively looked at what drives such a character, both the good and the bad—told more as documentary than as inflated drama.  Instead, it presents a rather flat character just as Kyle presents himself, but in the context of fairly sophisticated story-telling that doesn't seem apropos to the character. The film would have been far more interesting if it had studied the character, not merely worshiped him.

I certainly sympathize with the family of Kyle, especially now as his disturbed murderer is on trial. But I cannot but help reflect on the oddly ironic karma of a warrior who has anonymously killed as many as 200 human beings, one at a time, without apparent moral questioning, then earns a boatload of money from the book and the film rights, and is finally killed himself in a civilian context after returning safely home.

American Sniper is a pretty good movie, no matter what your politics.  But if you want to see Eastwood at his very best in a war film, then have a look at Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima. In those, Eastwood is very clear about his message. Both those movies are considerably better than American Sniper.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vaccination Vascillation

Traveling on business with a friend and colleague, the subject of vaccination against various public health threats came up in conversation. My colleague and her husband, I learned, had chosen not to receive influenza vaccinations this year, after many years of following the advice of the health-care community in religiously being inoculated against flu.

The reason?  The previous year, her husband had developed a frightening serious of symptoms that turned out to be Bell's Palsy.  It was, they learned, a well-established and well-documented, albeit rare, reaction to vaccination in some people.

I do not believe that public vaccination is the cause of widespread autism in this country, as a notable group of parents (and some celebrities) believe. The fact that so many parents believe so and are not vaccinating their kids is almost certainly the reason we are facing a mild outbreak of measles right now. My kids were of course vaccinated against all those various illnesses, as are most school age kids today.

A right of passage for Geezers in their youth. 
But  I don't believe you can compel people to accept medical treatment against their will. And I do worry, sometimes, about our hysteria regarding illnesses that most of us Geezers thought of as simple facts of childhood. As a kid, many if not most of us went through measles (both "German" and sometimes the "red" or "hard" measles), mumps, chicken pox. Once you had them, you were free of them for life. In fact, in some cases (chicken pox), parents actually encouraged kids to get infected so as to get the illness out of the way before adulthood, when the effects could be more severe. I recall instances where parents would send their kids to play with other kids who had chicken pox, seeking the inoculation that occurs naturally when a body fights off an illness.

These days, we treat these illnesses as though they are bubonic plague, and I wonder, really, if biologically we are doing ourselves any favor by preventing our bodies from going through them. I wonder if our kids are perhaps too tender and might actually be sturdier if their bodies had fought through the routine illnesses we all did as kids. Among my working staff, I'm frequently struck by how some young workers have so little stamina and grit when it comes to working through minor problems. They are so unused to physical malady of any kind that a simple headache can utterly incapacitate them.

A difficult question. A physician friend pointed out that back in the day a certain percentage of measles victims died or developed very serious conditions when they had the illness—far more as a percentage than those today who have serious reactions to vaccinations. As a matter of overall statistical public health, vaccinations make sense.  And I do recall as a kid that there were friends for whom chicken pox was so severe as to leave them with permanent scarring. And would you suggest, my friend asked, that people should also fight their way through small pox if that disease were to crop up again?

And as was also pointed out, it's not clear what Geezer conditions might be related to those childhood illnesses we all went through.  What if we find out that heart valve problems, Alzheimer's disease, or other serious maladies are long-term consequences of our having had measles or mumps as kids?  The jury is simply not in on such possibilities.

But I have to question the current hysteria that wants to force parents into vaccinating their kids. Liberal though I am, I do not think this is the kind of thing government can mandate. Nor do I think it is a catastrophic public health crisis if a dozen cases of measles pops up here and there. I have also heard enough compelling anecdotal stories of kids who developed frightening symptoms after vaccination, including sudden autistic like symptoms, to discount the possibility that this might occur in a few people. Parents should have the right, I think, to weigh those potential merits and risks and decide for themselves, even if their fears seem a little wacky by community standards.

I've an argument that suggests that, since we mandate things like wearing seatbelts or using child car seats, we also have a right to mandate vaccination. I'm uneasy about drawing such a parallel, since it feels like a slippery slope to begin forcing medical treatment on people.

At my last routine medical checkup, my doctor suggested that I'm at an age where I might want to consider a shingles vaccination. I'm finding this a harder decision than you might imagine.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Professor on the Rituals of Death

OK, folks, this is a somber and serious piece by the Professor....
—After along haitus, the Professor returns with a thoughtful discussion on matters of importance to the Geezer crowd—

One of the dubious “honors” bestowed on us by  accelerating Geezerdom is the opportunity to attend more funerals and memorial services than perhaps we would wish for if we had any control over such things.  

Of course I’m not the first to observe that death is one of the most inevitable and ever-present  components of a life well led. There is precious little any of us can do when faced with the passing of friends, family and colleagues.  But we do owe it to them to honor their life in some way. The question is how?  

Societies around the world and throughout the centuries have developed elaborate rituals around the dead, usually with a dual function: to assist the dead person’s transition from this life to whatever  phase  comes next; and to allow those who remain a means to start the transition from a world with the loved one to a world without.  It’s really quite an interesting area of anthropology, and I wish I knew more about it.  In the final analysis, death rituals—like so many practices in traditional cultures—can be viewed as  rites of passage.

America has not done well with any rights-of-passage lately.  As a university professor, I am surrounded every day by bright, talented, funny people who no more view  themselves as adults than I  view  myself as the Easter Bunny.  (And point of clarification: I do not—nor have I EVER—thought of myself as the Easter Bunny.)  Research over many years indicates that the average age at which our younger generations begin to regard themselves as adults was 20 just two decades ago, but is currently 27 years of age. So we’re not doing so well with the rite of passage to adulthood, it would seem. And that’s a relatively easy transition.  

How, then, are we doing with that rite of passage from this world to the next?  My recent experience has made me  question this more vigorously.

You see, over the last two months, I have attended four services to honor departed friends and colleagues; not one was a traditional funeral.  All of them occurred a number of weeks after the death in question (“convenience” was cited in each case); all of them were memorial services rather than funerals; all of them were described as a “celebration of life.”  (All of them, by the way, were perfectly lovely, and I would not have missed them.)  The question I have, though: : celebration of life is indeed in order—who could argue with that—but should it REPLACE the grieving, introspection and acknowledgement of our collective transience that characterizes a fulsome funereal service?

One of the Geezers—the Mathematician—likes to
periodically dress in drag to mourn his lost youth. 
I wonder: should the acknowledgement that a death has occurred and nothing will remain exactly the same again be put off for weeks to allow extended family and friend to conveniently work a date into their frantic schedules?  Should it be put on the back burner, or (perhaps worse) be ignored altogether in an effort to instead recreate and remember how wonderful the world was when the loved one was still here?  Have we started evolving from a fear of death (healthy or otherwise) to a state where we begin to IGNORE death?  (Celebrate the life, but don’t mention the suffering and bring everyone down!)

There is little doubt that the formal religious rituals that previously guided us through our most dramatic and challenging transitions in life (baptism, mar mitzvah/confirmation, wedding, funeral) have lost much or even most of their effectiveness in our increasingly secular culture.  But even secular rites of passage have diverged from acknowledging the fear and uncertainty of the unknown future toward a nostalgic look back at the wonderful, rose tinted (and controllable) past. 

Just look at high school graduation ceremonies which, in many cases, threaten to turn into a talent show with robes.  (A “celebration” of our wonderful children’s achievements rather than a ceremony to mark the commencement of the next, daunting phase of life.)  So if formal rituals and secular traditions are diminishing in their effectiveness, what are we to do as we face these moments of gut-wrenching transition?  I don’t know.  I suspect, though, that certain things might be worth considering:

• Death should be acknowledged—and promptly.  When a death to someone close occurs, we simply must take whatever time and mental space we can muster to deal with it.  Many studies of grief would agree with this.  But stopping our frantic lives is not only a good thing for us psychologically, it is a gesture of HONOR to the departed.  By putting off these issues for weeks—or even months—do we diminish, however inadvertently, the honor that is due?
To no one's surprise, this is how various
Geezer funerals will end some day. 

• Death is not convenient.  Who among us has not experienced the passing of someone close, but for some reason or another has been unable to pay their respects in person?  Such things will always happen; we do live in an era where people exist further and further away from each other in so many ways.  We do what we can; and sometimes that feels bad or inadequate.  But if, as a society, we begin to think of honoring our dead as a thing which can be scheduled into people’s lives conveniently, we run the danger that employers, judges, coaches—and we ourselves—will deny ourselves the permission to STOP and honor that which should be honored—immediately and emphatically.

-• Life is a mixture of dark and light, joy and sorrow, life and death.  Who would say that life should not be celebrated?  But dare we overlook the shadow which surrounds the wonderful moments of light we experience; the mortality which so intensifies each moment we seem to live fully; the death, and resulting grief, which is so inevitably linked to a vivid and active life well led? 

The Professor may not like it, but this indeed is
how we're sending him out, should he be the
first to meet the reaper. 
Thinking it through, the Victorians may have overdone it a bit with the wearing of black in emulation of Victoria’s flamboyant (and long-lasting) grieving of Prince Albert.  The Egyptians might have gone a bit over the top in terms of the structures they built to mark the passing of a ruler.  And even though I appreciate the dramatic gesture, I don’t want anyone torching my boat “Viking-style” to express collective anguish regarding my death—whether or not I’m aboard.

It seems to me the Irish have traditionally struck a nice balance with the celebratory, humor-filled  (and alcohol fueled) wake followed by the solemn Requiem Mass.  One of the more moving ceremonies I have participated in was a Jewish service, wherein the service occurred nearly immediately after the death, followed by the burial with which many of us—including two young sons of the deceased—assisted by placing shovelfuls of dirt upon the gradually disappearing coffin.  Is there a secular equivalent to this practice?  How can we develop a way to guide us through one of the most vexing rites of passage in a timely, fulsome way?  As the professor, I suppose I should have all the answers.  When it comes to marking death, though, I’m left with mostly questions.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Geezers Are Still Alive in 2015

One Geezer's  New Year's hope:  May these two, and everything they
stand for, vanish from the earth for all time. 
The Geezers were brought to tears of emotion recently, as a few people have said they've actually missed seeing the ramblings of various Geezers on these pages over the last month or two. The reality is that we've been dealing with other things— family illnesses, work disruptions, business travel, etc—that have caused us to shirk our duty to the 4.65 million rabid regular readers of Old Geezers Out to Lunch. It's not that we've been jailed, or fallen ill, or have any other excuse other than middle-aged laziness.

We apologize, and want to reassure you that all Geezers are alive and well. And over the holidays we were also in frequent discussion with one another on a variety of subjects of critical social and psychological concern. While none of these discussions have yet yielded a fully conceived essay, rest assured that we haven't yet slipped into mental decrepitude and that we do continue to consider the important issues of our time with the unparalleled wisdom of the sages.

So for today, we'll simply give you a hodge-podge of recent topics one or more of the Geezers have been noodling on recently. Sooner or later, we'll get off the dime and actually discuss one or more of these at some length.

• So what gives with radical Islam?  Do they indeed have a death wish?  It's one thing to fight the good fight within the geographic boundaries of an Islamic nation—on some level, many of us can even sympathize with some of that anti-imperial sentiment.  But initiating attacks in London, Paris, Toronto etc.,  etc. seems like it only will ensure that genuine global anti-Islam xenophobia ensues. The strategy seems most likely to bring the utter downfall of Islam, not its triumph or even its survival. And while I really don't feel all that fond of French satirists (generally they're not very funny), in this case I actually find myself in philosophical support.  "Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed...."

Father Time: the original Geezer
• What is the reason that time seems to accelerate as we get older?  This has been a source of lengthy discussion recently among the core Geezers in recent days. We all seem to agree that the years seem to zip by with increasing speed the older we get...but why the hell is this so? Theories abound, certainty is nowhere at hand.

• What the heck is with all the wearable, self-absorbed technology?  Fit-Bits, Google Glasses, Apple Watches. Selfie photos produced and distributed by just about everybody under the sun. Is this another manifestation of our narcissistic times, or a necessary step along the road to becoming a man/machine cyborg species?

• How will the GOP pull themselves together? Yeah, they've retaken Congress, lock-stock and barrel. But they are still led by the orange-skinned John Boehner, who seems pretty unpopular even among fellow Republicans. And a recent NY Times discussed the fact that the presidential frontrunners—Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee, who have genuine reasonableness in their characters—are already in the process of re-selling their souls in order to get nominated. Do we really need another quivery Democrat in office? 'Cause that's where the GOP is taking us.  Not even I'm excited about that possibility, pinko liberal though I am.

• Will the Supreme Court show some intelligence this year?  At issue is the question of the rights of gay couples, and the attitude of states like Louisiana which still, despite all logic and evidence,  believe in their rights to hold modern-day Jim Crow laws now directed at gay people.  Honestly:  in the relatively short time that many states  have now changed their laws 180-degrees, absolutely no social catastrophe has befallen us, anywhere. This is not the most courageous Supreme Court though, so stay tuned for more creative spinelessness—if not on this issue, then on the various questions regarding reproductive rights in places like Texas.

• Will Congress continue to stick its collective nose up the rear-end of Big Money?  About the only good thing to come out of the 2008-2009 economic recession was the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Since then, Congress has pretty steadily offered its bare butt whenever the investment community has whined and asked for repeal of laws requiring it to behave, well, ethically. 2008 saw us pretty damned close to complete global meltdown, and another failure to heed the lessons won't just affect huge corporations. If you have any money at all tucked away in a 401k or other investment location, can you really afford to see 40-60% of it evaporate again because Big Money returns to its greedy ways?  This is why we need people like Elizabeth Warren. Very few people in Congress have the courage to hold Wall Street accountable to the people who actually support it.

That, and more, in the weeks and months to come.

Friday, October 17, 2014

No Words Necessary

This is why some Geezers tolerate Minnesota winters. A selection of photos from a short hike yesterday at Afton State Park, overlooking the St. Croix River, 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Geezer History of the Hipster Style

In October of 1993, a young art director named Jakobb Whitaker, who worked at a downtown Manhattan ad agency, overslept his alarm after a night of drinking designer cocktails at a trendy Village club.  Running far too late that morning to shower, shave and go through the normal workday niceties, Jakobb cursed his bad luck, grabbed the first clean clothes he could find—which happened to be a pair of slacks and a suit jacket belonging to his room-mate and brother, Mozes Whitaker.

The garments Jakobb donned that morning were both too short in the legs and arms, and too tight for him, but he was frankly too hung-over to care. He was also too drunk to realize that he was also sporting a two-day growth of stubble beard and hair that poked up in irrational tufts of stubble from his head. He didn't even realize that he had left the shirt-tails of his brother's dress-shirt hanging loose under the too-tight suit jacket. He grabbed sunglasses only because he wanted no one to see his horribly blood-shot eyes.

It was a highly uncharacteristic sartorial state for Jakobb, but he was too tired and irritable to care, really, and this irritability fueled the mildly defiant attitude with which he arrived at the ad agency—which by the way, was the same ad agency that famously created the Lamisil toenail fungus ad campaign. As a result of his irritability,  he evinced no embarrassment or apology that morning for his disheveled appearance in a professional setting, and acted for all the world like this haphazardness was some sort of intentional style statement, not an unprofessional manifestation of carry-over drunkenness.

Good grief. Either shave, or grow a real beard. 
The rest is unfortunate history—and one reason why third-world nations hate America. The pampered young professionals at Jakobb's office, who had endured no real struggle in their lives, and harbored no goals of genuine substance, quickly seized on Jakobb's appearance as something to emulate, and by the end of the week all the young male workers under the age of 40 looked like cloned versions of Jakobb, and were already pushing the boundaries of slovenliness by adding denim jackets that had been artificially aged, and wearing knit Jamaican caps indoors.

With the terrifying swiftness of an insidious airborne virus, all of Manhattan fell next, then the entire eastern seaboard. The virus then took a quantum jump to the west coast, carried via 30 year old stock broker traveling first class on United Airlines, where it quickly raced up and down the Pacific coast. In its west coast mutation, hipsterism began to present with bright yellow and green slacks, and purple and red shawls wrapped around the neck like scarves. It was here, too—specifically on the beach communities—that young men began wearing their ball caps backwards on their heads.  In the northern coastal regions, from San Francisco northward, there was an explosion of purchases of JD Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye. Ironically, the hipsters seemed to completely miss the way the novel first person narrator, Holden Caulfield's, scathingly indicts cultural phonies.

Last to be infected was America's major heartland cities of Chicago, Minneapolis, and Fargo, ND, but fall they did, and in shockingly quick fashion. However, no new creativeness was brought to the hipster malaise here; mere emulation was all the midwesterners could muster. It was the first sign that the virulence of hipsterism might one day soften; under the stoic Midwestern genetic makeup, hipster mutation began to wane.

A mere 12 months after Jakobb Whitaker's ill-advised  preparation for work one morning, more than 90% of young male professionals in America no longer knew how to shave closely, how to choose clothes that fit, or how to tuck in their shirt tails. Most had even forgotten how to use a comb. Chronic hipterism is now nearly 20 years old in America.

Like all viruses, there are signs that hipsterism is beginning to run its course. Yesterday, the repairman who arrived to work on our  office copy machines, a fellow at least 50 years old, was wearing full hipster regalia—a sight which highlighted the fashion absurdity in no uncertain terms. The young hipster men in our office could be seen gathered outside the copy room, worriedly conferring and gesturing to the poor chronic middle-aged victim a few feet away.

The very next day, one young art director arrived at the office with his shirt-tails tucked in. It is too early to tell if this indicates natural immunity is at last developing, but it is to be hoped that the Midwest, last to be infected, will be the first to recover from hipsterism.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Highway 19 Revisited

On Saturday morning I hit the road out of Minneapolis very early in the morning. I am in the mood for a bit of a driving trip, and although the straight distance I cover will be only 65 miles, my odometer will put on 150 miles or so.  My intent is to wander around southeastern Minnesota along the small state and county highways on the way to my destination south of Red Wing.

Because Mrs. Mercurious is out of town traveling with her girlfriends, I am driving down to check on her aging parents at their rural home. But on the way I am also planning to stop in for a long coffee session with my oldest friend, whose wife, as it happens, is also one of the girlfriends traveling with my wife.The four of us are old, old friends. I'm expected at my in-laws at 10:30 or so, and calculating the recreational drive time plus an hour or two talking politics and philosophy with Steve has produced my early starting time.

The dawn is just breaking as I approach the south edge of Dakota County near the boundary of Goodhue county.  It's fully clear far to the east where the sun breaks, but the overhead sky is mostly cloudy. The sunrise has turned the sky salmon pink, casting a warm light on the fields of corn and soybeans, which are finally beginning to dry due to the first hard frost that hit the countryside last week.

It's early enough that in the dairy farms on either side of the highway, the cattle are all hovering around the barns, intuitively gathering there for the first milking of the day. So the only livestock out in the pastures in the early morning are the beef stock and occasionally some sheep.  The livestock graze contentedly with heads down; because of the low, oblique sunlight, elongated shadows extend out like stretched silouettes on the ground westward from all the grazing animals.

This topography is on the very eastern edge of the great upper midwestern prairie, and the farmlands in this area are rolling flatness. Far off to the south and east, I can see the edges of the big hills that mark the beginning of the bluff country lining the Mississippi river valley.

A bit later, I'm a few miles away from Cannon Falls and the highway is relatively deserted, but far behind me in my rear-view mirror, I see the headlights of a car approaching at what is clearly high speed. The car's low profile is no sheriff or highway patrolman, though, so out of curiosity I increase my speed thinking that it will be interesting to see how fast this fellow is going.

I'm going 80 or so when the driver approaching fast from behind smoothly shifts lanes to pass me, after appropriately signaling. The driver nods his head briefly as he passes, seemingly in acknowledgment of another driver who rather likes the sensation of speed on an early morning on a good highway. He's a young man, maybe in his early 20s, driving a Camaro that might be older than he is. The car has clearly been well cared for but has none of the ostentatious souped-up trappings with which some kids dress up their cars.

Almost immediately upon merging back into the right lane, he signals his intent to exit onto Highway 19, which coincidentally happens to also be my destination: it's part of the meandering path I intend to take this morning.  For a brief moment I have that middle-aged fatherly impulse to frown and shake my head at the excessive speed and potentially dangerous behavior of this young man, but instead find myself smiling a little. It's rather pleasing to see the joy of a young man with excellent driving skills and great reflexes fully at ease with the operation of a well-functioning machine that he understands so well.

The young man is a very good driver, and although fast, he's not particularly reckless. As we pass through the small town of Cannon Falls, he obeys the speed limits precisely—considerably more so than I would at this time of the morning. He makes no effort to scream away from stop signs with smoking rubber; he accelerates firmly but without excessive ego. It's not until we safely reach the outskirts of town that he hits the power again, and I follow him at a safe distance, not because I'm concerned for his safety or outraged by his behavior, but because it's enjoyable to watch.

As Highway 10 moves east out of Cannon Falls into the start of the hilly bluff country with winding turns, he uses his lane precisely but without violating their boundaries, cutting to the inside of sharp turns, smoothly accelerating coming out of the turns to keep his vectors changing. He clearly knows the road well; as we approach the turns, he seems to know which of them he can approach with fair speed, and those for which he'll need to brake going into the curve.

About 10 miles into the drive, the young man smoothly cuts off the highway onto a dirt gravel road, barely breaking stride at all. As I pass the point where the intersecting road meets the highway, I see him moving away in a cloud of mustard-colored dust, still doing perhaps 50 or 55 mph, fish-tailing slightly, but skillfully countering with small compensations of the steering wheel.

That explains a lot. Rural kids learning to drive on these gravel roads know a lot about how to control the inevitable sliding on corners, how to drift correctly through turns, precisely how much to accelerate and how to brake correctly without losing contact with the road. Later this morning, in fact, I'll be revisiting similar roads, where as a youth I squeezed past roaring milk trucks barreling through turns going in the opposite directly. Kids who grow up learning how to drive gravel roads at 60 miles an hour find driving on paved highways and freeways almost boring in their simplicity.

On this early morning, the young fellow is simply enjoying his proficient  skill with his machine on an entertaining road with interesting turns at a time of day when there is little hazard. It is a little dangerous, yes, but what is youth for if not to enjoy that feeling being  healthy and fully competent and a bit immortal?  Soon enough it will be replaced by more sensible caution and boring self preservation.

I now have Highway 19 all to myself as it now enters the real bluff country nearing the Mississippi valley, and the road gets increasingly interesting, with nice vertical movement and good turns, engineered with just the right banking pitches. It is a well designed highway, very well built, and it is a joy to drive on in an early autumn morning.

Coming out of the last turn, I come close to winning my Thanksgiving dinner. Four huge wild turkeys are walking across the road. They are safely on the shoulder as I pass them, and there is no braking or swerving necessary. They look back at me indignantly as I pass by.

Out of this last turn, Highway 19 straightens out as it comes to an end. I have perhaps a hour of meandering driving left, including a short stretch on well-known Highway 61, but most of it will be on unknown country highways and a few gravel roads before I will pull into Steve's riverside home for coffee and muffins.

As I approach the right hand turn from Highway 19 onto Highway 61, the big Mississippi Valley is visible for the first time, and the high bluffs of the Wisconsin side of the river, closer now,  have the early autumn color of hardwoods beginning to redden.

The song playing on the car's radio through my I-phone makes me smile. It is in no way apropos of the moment—there's no real poetic synronicity here— but Jose Feliciano's famous acoustic  rendition of an iconic Door's song elevates my general well-being to a level that's nearly painful in its expansive pleasantness:

"You know I would be a liar
If I was to say to say to you
Girl we couldn't get much higher"