Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Thoughts on Events in Garland, Texas

Like most people, I reacted to the news of the terrorist attack on the cartoonists' conference in Garland, Texas with weary discouragement and outrage. It lent fuel to my increasing belief that we are currently in a new form of World War, with radical Islam battling pretty much the rest of the world. The definition of a World War, after all, is a conflict "involving most of the world's most powerful nations."  The 15-year "war on terror" seems to qualify, given the involvement of the US, Great Britain, France, etc. etc. (It does seem to me, though, that calling this a "war on terror" is slightly misleading. Let's call it what it really is: a war of Judaic/Christian culture vs. that of fundamental Islam.  It's really a particular subcategory of terror that we're fighting here.)

Like many westerners, each time a new such episode occurs, I have the slightly shameful thought that the west should go whole-hog and stamp this thing out once and for all; a small, rarely vocalized thought that if radical Islam wants jihad, then the west ought to respond in kind and get this thing over with. After all, they started it. But then I tell myself that this group represents a small faction of a religious philosophy that includes many, many innocent people. I'm a bit ashamed of the angry knee-jerk reaction I sometimes harbor.

It also bears consideration that we (meaning some members of the west) have a role in this. Somewhat lost in our outrage is the fact that a principle organizer of this event, Pamela Geller, turns out to be a hate-monger of the most dedicated and profound ilk. In her recent history, she has made a tidy career of persecuting all manifestations of Islam, including organizing successful opposition to the construction of mosques and Islamic culture centers. A key organizer of the American Freedom Defense League Initiative, as well as a highly visible supporter of the English Defense League—both organizations seeking the virtual extinction of Islam—her blog "Atlas Shrugs" has been labeled a hate site by PayPal and government watch groups. (Ironically, given her own Jewish heritage, members of the English Defense League often appear in public wearing swastikas; the passion here is not ideology but pure hatred).  Her response to the Texas shooting was something akin to jubilation—it proved her point and justified her career of hate-mongering. Violence was the goal of organizing the event.

None of this excuses this or any other Islamic terrorist activity in any way. Our culture is based on freedom of speech, and much the way Westboro Church has the right to scream hate messages about gay people, this woman has a right to organize a conference aimed, really, with hopes of a violent response from Islamic radicals. But neither can we ignore the full reality of the situation. If police officers had been killed in this operation, Pamela Geller and other organizers would have borne some moral responsibility for inciting violence.

And before we automatically trumpet the rights of expression for a conference aiming to caricature the prophet Mohammed, we should make sure that we'd be equally comfortable if Ms. Geller had organized a conference awarding a prize for the best depiction of Jesus Christ fornicating with the Virgin Mary. I wonder how serious we'd be about defending freedom of speech in that instance.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Last Message from a Geezer Pedestrian

In the last year or so, Minneapolis has gained a lot of press as a city at the very top in terms of being "friendly" to the bicycling community. This is testament to the effectiveness of the propaganda practiced by the political arm of the bicycling community. In reality, Minneapolis is a metropolis now besieged by BUFO (Bicyclists United for Fascist Objectives).

To be perfectly clear, I am not painting the entire bicycling community with this paintbrush—only the arm that wields political clout. Much the way Germans of nationalist sympathies between the years of 1935 and 1945 could not be said to all be Nazis, not every innocent man or woman riding a two wheeler in Minneapolis is a member of BUFO. The reality, though, is that BUFO is where the power lies within the subculture, and it now threatens to symbolize bicyclists everywhere in the Minneapolis metro area.

It started innocently enough, and with noble intent. Bicycling in the early days was seen as a healthy lifestyle, both for individuals and for the environment. It burned no fossil fuels, and in a city already known for healthy lifestyle, a burgeoning bicycle culture was as a source of pride. For a city with frigid winters to have practitioners cycling madly away in the dead of January, it was a source of substantial pride. Anybody can bike in Santa Monica, CA. It takes a special place for such a culture to arise in frigid Minneapolis,

For a long while we were lulled into complacency as a city as BUFO took hold. All of us, even devoted automobile drivers and pizza eaters, felt some pride whenever USA Today or Shape magazine proclaimed us  as a bike-friendly and oh-so-healthy.

Gradually, though, more and more green grassy parklands began to be paved over with 6-foot wide paved bike lanes; regional parks where hiking had been the norm were converted into either mountain-bike pathways or paved recreational bike trails; whole city streets lost entire paved lanes to exclusive use by the bikes; pedestrian sidewalks were consumed by bike lanes;  and yet nothing was enough. The BUFO bicyclist lobby demanded more and more.

Today, many of the major one-way thoroughfares in and out of downtown all have 30% of their space devoted to bicycle traffic that is laughably sparse. By one recent audit, a major street that gets 500 automobiles per hour in rush hour traffic sees only 6 bicycles in that time frame. Yet not only does that street devote 40% of its surface area to bicycle-only lanes, but the BUFO force is steadily demanding that more space be carved away to their diabolical juggernaut. At this very moment, an intense debate is underway for adding yet another major bike street—in a location exactly two blocks away from a current one.

Our bicyclist community (or at least the BUFO core), now legitimately believes that it owes no responsibility to follow traffic laws. They routinely ignore stop lights and stop signs, and weave in and out of traffic lanes in a manner that would get an automobile drive stopped and breath-alized. In those instances where near misses occur between bike and car because a biker has run through another red light, you can be guaranteed that he will shake his little fist and curse you loudly.

So effective is the propaganda machine that when a fatality occurs, BUFO once again trots out imaginary statistics that proclaim that 99.9% of the time bike-car accidents are the fault of the motorist. This is utter nonsense as any new car driver to the city will verify. A colleague new to our city told me recently that he had never seen a place where more aggressive, arrogant, and self-entitled bicyclists existed. Yet that statistic—that cars are at fault virtually all the time—is now taken as conventional wisdom that cannot be challenged.

When bicyclist is killed in a car accident in Minneapolis, a national day of mourning ensues. His BUFO brethren very often erect a memorial on the spot, in the form of a painted "ghost bike" that draws attention to the tragedy. This despite the fact that there's a very likely chance the bike rider died while adjusting his headphones with one hand, sending a text message with the other, while staring high into the trees to identify another bird species on his lifetime watch list. While running a red light.

BUFO party members now have official uniforms, in the way of spandex biking shorts and colorful shirts printed with the names of famous bike racing personalities. The echo of young neo-nazis wearing Hitler tee-shirts is striking. The absurdity of this seems lost on all, but it makes it clear that this is a political movement. What other reason could there be for a routine bicycle commuter to dress like Lance Armstrong?  What would the reaction be if I were to don a NASCAR racing suit every time I climbed into my Mazda to run to Home Depot for garden supplies?  I would of course be jeered, yet my 50-year-old colleague can arrive at the office dressed as Tour de France racer #2045, with black bike shorts squeezing his prostate into oblivion, yet no one dare make comic fun of him.

Completely lost in the current political/cultural environment are the rights and needs of a group that has now all the dignity of Kurdish shop-owners in Sadaam Hussein's Bagdad—the lowly pedestrian. Long the victim of motorists who view pedestrians as passenger pigeons to be harvested for sport, the Minneapolis pedestrian now is being routinely hunted by bicyclists, as well. A pedestrian waiting at a corner for a walk sign can routinely expect to have a bicyclist shout at him angrily to get out of the way so he can plow through on the sidewalk against the traffic light. Yesterday on the way back from lunch, I crossed an intersection lawfully in a crosswalk when a bicyclist, crossing at 90-degrees against the red light and against the pedestrian "walk" sign, pushed me in the back of the head because I had failed to yield the right-of-way to his lawlessness.

Hold a place in your hearts for the recreational bicyclist of yore. Maintain a soft spot for the traditional pedestrian. Soon they shall be forgotten.

Editor's note:  The BUFO does not exist, at least in not any official way. That detail is fictional.   But that single invented fact is the only thing hyperbolic in the entire essay printed here. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Naked Admission

I like showering with naked men.

This is as big a surprise to me as it is to anyone. Over the course of my life, all pleasurable shower and bath experiences I've had,  both in fact and in imagination, have been with members of the opposite sex, not my own. Over the years, I've showered and bathed occasionally with my wife, as well as people like Susan Sarandon, Grace Kelly, Sophia Loren, Julie Christie and even, once, Scarlett Johanson (....fact AND imagination, remember) and found it to be great good fun in each case. At no point did I ever enjoy showering with, say, George Clooney.

So it's somewhat surprising to find at this late stage in life that I actually enjoy showering with my fellow men, at a time when nakedness around ANYONE should be a little intimidating.

Working out four time a week has paid HUGE
dividends for me. You should have seen me
four months ago. 
In January, with incentives both from my health insurance provider and from my employer who has begun to match the insurance company's credit, I joined the YMCA again. It was not without trepidation, I will say. Now approaching 60, I am nowhere near the physical specimen now that I was 30 years ago—or even 10 years ago, for that matter. I am most certainly on the plump side, enough so that it makes my doctor chide me;  and I really, really think twice about going shirtless at the beach or to mow the yard. I no longer impose that indignity on the public; they've done nothing to deserve that spectacle.

It's not that I was ever Adonis, but back in high school and college I was moderately athletic and maintained a fair amount of activity into my 40s. There is nothing about me that has ever been the legitimate source of excessive naked pride, if you get my drift, but there was a time when I was above average in fitness, and I certainly didn't feel at all ill at ease to be seen naked back then (except perhaps if a Catholic priest happened to be somewhere in the area).

But that's  most certainly not who I am now, and so it was with trepidation that I considered getting back into the gym, taking my clothes off in the locker room, showering openly with other human beings. (In recent years, I tend to hide my eyes if walking in front of the big bathroom mirror alone in my own home). I am just plain shy in the best of circumstances, and am now decidedly insecure about my middle age paunch, which is now pronounced enough that I have to crane my neck forward and down to inspect.....things.

But much to my amazement, I am finding the locker room rituals to be quite relaxing, and not nearly as awful as I expected. For one thing, there wasn't the expected hoard of healthy young guys to contrast with my decrepitude. This is the YMCA, after all, and the vast majority here are old geezers like myself with sags and wrinkles that are at least as pronounced as my own. (Actually, at most times of day, I'm younger than the median age, I think).

To my surprise, it's rather freeing to let it all hang out with a bunch of men of middle-age and beyond, because there is no way to hide and hence there is nothing but open acceptance here, really. Amusement and good-natured conversation abound, and the whole atmosphere makes me look forward to retirement, when I can spend a couple of hours a day at the gym rather than the frantic 60 minutes afforded now. (And um, no, it's not that I want to spend that full two hours each day being naked.)

At no time is the locker-room amusement more pronounced than when some 20 - 30-year old arrives with his carefully razored torso. This hairlessness of body is all the rage among young adults these days, I know, but men are supposed to be hairy beasts, and the rest of old guys can't really resist smiling at little when some some young metrosexual enters the shower room with his cold and exposed pet salamander. Open laughter has been known to occur, because we older guys would never think to trim the shrubbery. It's ironic that the men who experience embarrassment in the locker room aren't the old sagging codgers, but waxed young men painfully aware that they're the source of amusement to their elders.

One old fellow, a urologist, had fun one day by casually mentioning to another old guy in the shower room that he had ordered a patient's penis amputated last month due to gangrene. He explained, loudly enough for an unsuspecting hairless fellow to hear, that shaving the genitals can lead to ingrown hairs that can become infected and lead to devastation. (This is, I later learned, a true problem). The young man paled and scurried quickly from the shower room, nervously glancing down at his plumbing.

The greatest of all sources of amusement is when somebody who is older, who ought to know better, shows up with his chest and naughty bits all plucked, shaved, waxed and otherwise denuded. No clearer sign is there of mid-life crisis than when a mature fellow tries to act young in this most private of all ways. When somebody like this enters the shower room,  dead silence reigns as all the oldsters bite their cheeks to avoid laughter.

I'm sure all this would be different if this were an LA fitness, where I most certainly would be out of place. If fact, I understand that at the more chic gyms, or even at YMCA's with a younger clientele, the young men are rather appalled by the ease with which older guys will walk around and talk while buck naked (see this quite funny article written from that perspective).  But this is old-guy YMCA, after all, and here I find it just fine to shower with naked men, where everybody laughs about the foibles of the young and takes delight in making them uncomfortable.

Who knows, I may even start mowing the yard topless again. Let the neighbors beware.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The War For/Against Science

A recent edition of National Geographic magazine had as its cover story a lengthy essay entitled "The War on Science," in which it analyzed and derided the various anti-scientific and pseudoscientific theories that today are found in such plentiful numbers—such as 'the moon landing was faked,' and the view that global warming is some kind of liberal plot. And the granddaddy of wackiness: that evolution is a "theory" and that creationism is a viable alternative theory.

It is said that only about 50% of Americans believe that evolution and natural selection is the real deal. The Nat Geo essay is presented, predictably, with a slight air of condescension, as is fitting for a magazine that is dedicated to the popular science demographic. "Look at those poor dummies who don't believe in the holiness of science."

What is missing to the article, and to the modern discourse, is any acknowledgement that there may be some reason to doubt science.  I wonder, sometimes, if the wacko extremist anti-science folks exist simply as a balance the extremism of the opposite side. I would argue that those who worship science may be just as misguided as group who believes that the moon landing was held on a sound stage in Arizona.

Says Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health:  "Science will find the truth....ultimately it will find the truth."

Except that it really hasn't at all, and the history of science is really the history of "truths" that are gradually proven to be, at worst, utter horrifying falsehoods, and at best, incomplete but useful premises. Scientific "truths" have been steadily overturned throughout history. At one time alchemy and astrology were declared to be scientific truth. Steadily, such ridiculous ideas get overturned, and even now on a daily basis, beliefs formerly held as truths are abandoned or revised.  If there is an 'ultimate truth' out there, science by no means has found it. Consider some examples:

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity began its development in 1907, and 108 years later science really doesn't fully understand the nature or behavior of light and matter. Intense debate rages among different factions in the world of quantum physics, even among such basic questions as whether light is a matter or energy.

The doctors who advised the mothers of these
children were quite certain that science was truth. 
In the early 50s, highly trained doctors, priests of science, believed that Tholidomide, a drug being used to combat certain respiratory infections, should be used off-label to combat morning sickness in pregnant mothers. They were scientists after all, so of course they had the truth.  The result were tens of thousands of babies born with horrifying birth defects of their limbs. Many of the photos are almost too awful to look at.

Just today, in the science section of my morning Sunday newspaper, I learn that the most up-to-date studies show there is no statistical validity to the belief that fish oil supplements laden with omega-3 oils have any benefit toward reducing the chances of stroke or heart disease. In the same newspaper: no evidence that eating apples really does anything for "keeping the doctor away." Just last week, mind you, my general practice doctor reminded me to take my fish oil supplement. But he no longer insists on PSA testing—such is the speed with which scientific truth changes.

Other modern medical wisdom currently under review as possible bunk:  that cholesterol is a form of poison in the system (some people who reduce cholesterol seem to be at more risk for debilitating arthritis); that a baby aspirin consumed once a day offers protection against anything at all. The small scientific truths that are debunked daily are too legion to count.

Evolution, while of course explaining how species develop and change and "self-select" due to their suitability to the conditions in which they must live in,  is now recognized to be slightly incomplete as a paradigm.

Only a couple of hundred generations ago, Raphael's
ancestors were bashing in skulls with mastodon femurs. 
The pure theory of evolution is that it's a matter of pure accident—species who happen to be born with a mutation that proves beneficial have a better chance of survival and passing along those beneficial genes.  Yet it appears that the development of species often happens much faster than would be the case by mere genetic accident. Can you really explain the rabid change of the human species from cave-dweller to  audience members at Copeland symphony in a mere 20,000 years?

So it's now proposed that there is a mechanism by which current conditions, and even free will, can actually change your genes in mid-stride. The genes you had as child may not be the same genes you have 25 years later, when you conceive your own children. A person abused as a child may actually have their very genes altered, as do those of a child leading an enriched early life. The implications of this are enormous. Evolution may not be entire matter of pure genetic accident, but may actually have some overtones of karma and even willful intention.

If this is so, then evolution, as is the case with every other scientific "truth," may be be an idea that is itself be still evolving.

Truth, by its definition, is a stable, non-changing thing. What is often called truth, by Francis Collins and others, often proves itself to be just another temporarily useful fiction, subject to steadily changing revision.

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.