Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Monday, September 19, 2016

Neighborhood (Manure) Storm

Now working a mere 30 hours a week, I find myself with a little free time on my hands, and among the amusements I allow myself is reading the on-line postings for our neighborhood chat board. It serves a rather large zone of the city, perhaps 1500 or so homes, maybe more. The chat board is a place in which neighbors alert one another that there's a rash of garage break-ins occurring in one corner of the neighborhood; or that that loud boom at 2:00 am the other night was just a power transformer blowing out. It's the place where garage sales are announced, where people ask advice on good chiropractors working in our area.  That kind of stuff.

It's also a place for a handful of eccentrics and occasional crackpots practice their writing skills. So the chat forum also has its entertainment value. One fellow spent two pages the other day bitterly complaining about a single small dog turd left in the grass of his boulevard. Another writer described in very peculiar fashion that he'd seem some crazy person trying to eat the face off a child at a local park (no such event ever happened).

Another writer recently reported that a teenager up to late summer hijinks was seen streaking naked around the Walgreen's parking lot—conjecturing that this was certainly a manifestation of either sexual predation or drug use,  rather than a 16-year old running naked on a dare. This guy then proudly GAVE CHASE  to the young man, finally cornering the kid on the shores of a small pond. An old man driving his car to chase down a naked teenager was apparently in the boundaries of proper behavior, while a kid running naked on warm night after being dared by his friends is the stuff of felonies.

My wife realized a week or to ago that I had begun to post my own replies to a few of these letters, and warned me then that nothing good was likely to come of it. She knows me well. But I  sometimes can't help but drop in a quiet reply note on the chat board. And if this has the effect of gently baiting one of the eccentrics and his minions, well, whose fault is that?

To the fellow outraged by a teenager streaking in the night, for example,  I replied with an outraged agreement over "today's youth,"  then went on to express my own similar outrage at a kid who had stepped on plants in my garden, and finally asked if anyone knew the telephone number whereby the FBI could be alerted. Hyperbole, all the way. If you were keeping score, you'd get big points for putting sarcasm over on the writer of the letter without him catching it. My success rate exceeds 50%.

It's all meant in rather good fun, really. I actually like the lunatic fringe. They are more fun than the dreadful "I found a baby sock, is it yours?" folks.

But the other day I came across a fellow's rant about a careless driver in the neighborhood. Now, a rational neighbor might alert the chat board to be on the lookout for a possibly dangerous driver, and that would be that. Good old fashioned public service. This writer, though, went through a creative writing exercise that included phrases like "assholedness" and "jackassery," not to mention a host of other misspellings and vitriolic raging. The tirade went on for perhaps 700 words or so, and was done not to inform, but to rant.

With an admitted lack of cleverness, my quiet printed response, one among two dozen from other neighbors,  was "Perhaps review grammar before next post?"

Lord in heaven, what a shit-storm ensued.

"Jim" appears to have quite a following, since in addition to several "likes" given to my own comment,  a half-dozen of Jim's tribe began to publicly accuse me of malicious cruelty. Then one decided to go on a personal quest—first with a long public response saying that she'd complained to the board's moderator that I had inappropriately "attacked a fellow neighbor." The board's moderator responded by suggesting gently that "Jim's" complaint had been a little inappropriate to begin with. This perhaps is what set Joyce in to hyper drive.

Unhappy with the response,  Joyce then decided to send me a personal, non-public message bitterly accusing me of vindictively attacking Jim. (Personal messaging is a rather unusual thing in our chat forum, reserved generally for situations in which somebody gives you their phone number after offering to magnanimously take that incontinent old dog off your hands, for example. )

It was fascinating. Let's remember, my comment was merely "Perhaps review grammar?"

Joyce was, she said, a teacher of college English, and as such had reviewed Jim's essay before hand, and had verified that it was both grammatically fine, and semantically brilliant. Furthermore, Jim was a scion of a fine old family within the community, and had earned the right to be guardian of the roadways. He had the ears of police officers everywhere. Hitler himself would not have attacked Jim as cruelly as I had done.

Hmm. This was getting distinctly entertaining.

The first dumb thing I did was begin playing along, by responding to Joyce in the same private chat mode. I feigned professional interest, asking what dictionary I might refer to for a definition of "jackassery." And I asked for a citation in Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Book where Jim's interesting use of punctuation in and around parentheticals was promoted. (Clearly,  I have,  too much time, on my hands.).

Escalation ensued, and before I knew it I was into eccentricity beyond my pay grade.  Soon Joyce announced that she was "watching me" (her real words) and would report any bad behavior to the police.

Any rational person would  realize that this was some serious lunatic nonsense going on now, and would have responded with dead silence and getting the hell out of the neighborhood chat forum altogether.  Is that what your Geezer friend, Mercurious did?  No, of course not. Instead,  I stupidly replied to Joyce once more, saying that her "stalking threats" were scaring my little kids, and that my dear little Jenny was crying her eyes out about the "crazy lady hunting us." (My own daughter is 27, is not named Jenny, and eats dumbasses alive for breakfast in a way that puts me to shame.)

You may now be relieved (or perhaps disappointed) to hear that we now take a step backward from the gate to the crazy farm.

This story does not end in tragedy or even juicy drama. Two more rounds of private messages ensue, in which first I learn that "Joyce" is actually "Jim's" wife—not his English teacher—and that her angry accusations are her means of rather touchingly defending her hubby—who apparently has a medical condition marked by a very, very thin epidermis. This is proven when Jim himself actually private-messages Mercurious, apologizing for his inappropriate name-calling—and then kind of weepingly acknowledging he is a bad writer but is trying to get better. (Dunno, maybe my own leg being pulled? I kind of hope so.) And Mercurious also apologizes for inadvertently creating personal insult rather than simply communicating compositional criticism.

Mercurious, "Joyce" and "Jim" are now fast friends. We'll be vacationing next spring to the foothills of the mountains near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in an enclave that caters to our kind.



Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mr. Wells, Time to Go Back to Fargo

The Mercurious household has for many years banked with Wells Fargo.

Wait until I finish to call me an ignorant jackass.

I'll grant you there is no real reason for this banking loyalty except laziness and simple ennui.  For many years we banked with a very good local banking corporation known as Norwest, and when they were acquired by Wells Fargo a couple of decades ago, we just went along for the ride. And never bothered to dismount.

Wells Fargo has been known for years as one of the better (or at least less evil) giants of the big national banking conglomerates. It did not, for example, hang its tits fully out the car window in the outrageous mortgage debacle that threatened to bring down the entire US economy in 2008 and 2009, and overall it is viewed as the best managed of all the huge banking corporations. Seriously: that's its reputation.

That's not to say that Wells Fargo hasn't annoyed me. The fact they have gradually and systematically tried to increase the fees they charge to consumers for the right to hold their money and lend it out to others at 5 to 23% interest is pretty damned outrageous, after all. The not-insubstantial minimum balance I've graciously kept in their vault for 20 years has likely earned them many times that amount in credit card or mortgage interest charged to some other customer. And for funding them, they try to charge ME a fee.

But I understand that gone are the days of my youth, where the local hometown bank would at least give you utterly free checking simply because you were loaning them your money to fund their business.

And after all, you simply can't find a major bank anymore that offers this kind of old-fashioned customer service,  so I felt no reason to drop Wells Fargo. I mean, it served no purpose to give my money to Citicorp instead.

Another source of annoyance has been the fact that every single time I have business at the bank teller window, the Wells Fargo employee has ALWAYS tried to convince me that I should consider opening some kind of different, additional account. I mean this is pretty ludicrous, and I've told them as much:  what could be the possible purpose of opening a second savings account that gets .00000102% interest rather than the impressive .0000001% I'm already getting?  An extra .37 cents annually in interest is simply not worth the time to fill out the application. If you want a real laugh, look into the mutual fund offerings from a major bank. This is the reason why low-fee brokers like Vanguard are doing so well.

 Mrs. Merurious and I are not stupid, so of course the only cash we keep in Wells Fargo is the emergency, disposable fund balances—just enough to keep fees to a minimum—yet each time you approach a teller, they check your balance and if it reaches some kind of lip-smacking threshold, they try to talk you into stepping into the back room to discuss "options for your money."  It's gotten to the point where I preempt them by saying "No, I don't want to discuss options for my money. Let's discuss options for you to shut up and deposit these checks. "

Now, of course, we know why they've been doing this.  Those Wells Fargo employees have been offered incentives by management to talk poor schmucks into opening additional accounts of dubious or nonexistent merit. And in many, many instances, it appears they were going ahead to open those accounts without even permission on the part of the customer, simply to reap the in-house commissions. This is called criminal fraud, my friends.

It gets worse, of course. This is not a few bad-apple employees, but 5300 of them (that we know about so far) who did this illegal no-no and have been caught at it. All 5300 have been fired, of which 10% were the managers who either planned the fraud, actively looked the other way, or were too incompetent to have watch-dogged their direct reports. The head of the division that perpetrated this fraud, Carrie Tolstedt, recently retired with a $125 million bonus, proving that not only was she a criminal/incompetent, but her own bosses were, too.
Carrie Tolstedt, one of Wells Fargo's brightest stars. 

The truly scary part, of course, is that this is the banking corporation widely regarded as the best in the nation. What the hell then, is going on at JP Morgan, Citibank, Bank of America? One can only guess.

If Hillary Clinton has any brains at all, she needs to pick up at least this part of the Bernie Sanders platform:  the banking industry in America is an evil, greedy giant that will take us down if we don't do something quickly.

It's making my local Ben & Marvin's Credit Union and Barbecue Shack looking ever more appealing. At least their I get a free order with ribs for my minimum balance.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Patriotism Considered

I'm not a fan of patriotism. It makes me uneasy.

This is sentiment you are best advised to keep to yourself, most of the time, most places, because patriotism these days, and for most people, is regarded as a virtue second to none. But I find patriotism to be a dangerous sentiment. During the playing of the national anthem at public events,  I stand and take off my cap, out of respect to military servicemen, mostly, and in celebration of joining with like-minded people in a large public gathering.  But I do not sing, and the flag does nothing whatsoever to moisten my eyes.

At the time, this was regarded as unpatriotic.....
I arrived at my uneasiness regarding patriotism, I suppose, as a result of living my formative years through the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam and Watergate years, where it became evident that blind support of the policies of one's nation caused too many people to ignore its problems.  When I was a late teenager and young adult, there was a common bumpersticker that said "America, Love it or Leave It."

To which my silent response was always "Fuck you, buddy."  If you truly loved your country, it seemed to me, the adage should be "America: if you Love it, Change it for the Better." The people who unconsciously waved the flag at every opportunity always struck me as simply too lazy to really think hard or see clearly. In the satiric novel Cat's Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut defined a grandfalloon as a false "karass"—a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. His example: any nation, any where, any time. To this day, that seems to me an excellent way to look at blind patriotism. It is an automatic emotion that can too easily be manipulated.

.....while this was the epitome of patriotism. 
I see it as a short step from blind patriotism to blind nationalism, and it was rabid nationalism, after all, that allowed the National Socialist party to rise in Germany in the 1930s. Following your nation's leaders wherever they go is a potentially dangerous enterprise. It's no surprise that it's a form of blind patriotism/nationalism that political parties are using today to try to garner support. So many people wave the flag without thinking about it, that the candidate who manages to identify himself as the patriotic candidate will almost always win.

Civic devotion, it seems to me, should be aimed at the higher values that are hopefully part of the nation's mission statement, or aimed at individuals within that nation and their rights to pursue those values. There is nothing whatsoever holy about the imaginary lines that create national boundaries, or about the flag used to symbolize that artificial territory, for that matter. A true patriot would celebrate a foreigner coming to America to join us in freedom; they would not want to build walls to keep folks out.

A gathering of John Wayne and other "patriots" in 1969. 
So I have some sympathy for actors, musicians, athletes and other prominent people who take a stand on national stages to point out when national hypocrisy raises its head. In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith upon winning the 4 x 100 relay event in the Olympics bowed their heads and raised fists covered with black gloves to protest the treatment of black people in America. Their reward was to be stripped of their medals and publicly humiliated—for a while. History now suggests their move was a heroic one, and both men are now rightly respected as folk heroes.

This week, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick says he will not stand during the national anthem this season, out of protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I honestly don't know what his motivation here is, but before ridiculing him we'd be well advised to realize this protest carries significant professional risk for Colin, and we'd also be well advised to remember John Carlos and dozens of others for whom true patriotism was not about waving the flag, but about expressing their public shame of it when the nation was behaving shamefully.

The Woodstock festival, I'd submit, was a far more patriotic
demonstration of democracy than any Donald Trump rally. 
John Wayne made dozens of movies in which he played military heroes. But John Wayne also supported McCarthyism, and seems to have ratted out colleagues in order to advance his career. History shows that John Wayne was no patriot at all. The judgment of history is much different for people like Arthur Miller, whose play The Crucible lampooned McCarthyism; or Edward R Murrow, who always saw McCarthy for what he was and had the courage to say so.

I will continue to rise for the national anthem, but the warmth of my feelings will be for the fellowship of the people around me, for the memory of those who have served to preserve my ability to enjoy that fellowship. It will be out of respect for human values, not dedication to a nation or flag.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Minneapolis Streetwalker: August 25, 2016

Maybe it's because my left knee is throbbing tonight, or maybe because the time of day reminds me that a good friend a couple of thousand miles away is likely at this moment under a radiation machine getting zapped for cancer treatment. Whatever the reason, as I sit at the Lake Harriet band shell watching a free outdoor evening concert, I find myself musing about the various injuries and wounds and illnesses that are part of the human condition.

My recent goal  to walk the length of every street of Minneapolis over the next few years is off to a steady but slow start, hampered by a leg brace protecting my surgically repaired knee. On most days, I go to a neighborhood somewhere in the city to walk a bit toward the overall goal. On this day, the last few hundred yards of walking involved Ms. Mercurious and I walking from our parking spot to the outdoor band shell on the shores of a pretty city lake beset with sail boats cruising in the early evening light. After a day of activity, the knee is now communicating with a rhythmic throb—not angrily, but just letting me know its feelings on the matter.

There are plentiful signs among the audience members that I am by no means alone in having a physical challenge, which in my case is only a temporary thing.  Off to the right, a young woman wears a plastic boot over her lower leg, possibly recuperating from a bone fracture. Up at the front of the seating area, a couple of people are in wheelchairs—whether due to injury or chronic condition is not entirely clear. To our left is a fellow with his left arm and shoulder in a sling. Elsewhere,  I spot a variety of canes and walkers and other assistive devices. The free concerts draw a lot of geezer patrons;  I feel right at home here.

For some reason, my attention is especially drawn to a man sitting ahead a few rows and off to the left.  There is something weary and a little forlorn about him. He is about 70 years old and has the appearance of a former club biker winding down after a hard life. He wears a somewhat battered black leather jacket, and his shoulder -length white hair hangs, curtain -like, from a head that is entirely bald on top. His white beard is now carefully trimmed at the neck and high on the cheeks, but I imagine that back in the day it may have a ferocious thing, a full and prickly bramble. From his sleeves I can see signs of indeterminate tattoos peaking out.

The man does not look overtly unhappy or irritable, but neither is there any expression of contentment or happiness. Most in the crowd, even those sitting alone, are slightly smiling at being part of a crowd listening to pleasant music on a truly wonderful, cool summer night, but this fellow’s expression is blank and best described as resigned and perhaps just slightly morose. I notice that his right leg is slightly shorter than his left, as evidenced by a thick-soled orthopedic shoe on that foot. Is this a congenital problem, I wonder, something that has made him feel different since childhood, or is it the result of some serious motorcycle accident? My imagination, as always, tends toward the dramatic explanation  In any case, I am slightly concerned for his seeming lack of joy tonight.

I glance around the crowd, again taking in the individuals here and there with signs of injury or chronic disability. I am of course only spotting the individuals with obvious visible signs. Many, many more people in the crowd likely have invisible problems or traumas, current or historical, that can't be identified by sight alone. We are all very much alike in this respect.

About the only people who do not yet have some form of wound or pain may be the little kids playing about the aisles and the space in front of the music stage. Some of them have those magic sneakers that flash neon lights in response to some strange generating machinery in the heels; their feet flicker in the night like high-tech fireflies. When the kids got too rambunctious, some of the parents rein them in. I wish they parents would simply let their kids dance. 

One pretty little dark-haired girl in a sun-dress pirouettes in circles with her arms clasped together behind her back, and on each revolution her broad smile reveals deep dimples in her cheeks, evident even from thirty feet away in deepening darkness. 

In the right mood, I sometimes get a precise sense of what a child will look like in old age, or what an adult likely looked like as a small child.  It's as though I see people as lenticular portraits—as toddler, teenager, old-timer—all at the same time. In this little girl dancing to the music, I now see early echoes of an adult I know. When she was a youngster, I'm sure the woman I'm thinking of looked and behaved a lot like this little dancing girl by the lake.

Even these apparently carefree kids, though, will eventually know some woundedness, if they don’t already. It is an unavoidable part of life.

If you think all is a slightly depressing thought to have on such a night, you'd be quite wrong. My mood tonight is not at all melancholy. Instead, I find something reassuring  about the observation, as it seems to me that our shared experience is what unifies the crowd tonight. It is our ability to accept and transcend ordinary human pain and frailty that has brought us all here tonight to enjoy the music and the evening. In the final measure, music, art, and other forms of social communion are really a means of both articulating, and rebelling against,  human limitation.

A sentient being, the mystics will tell you, is any creature who is capable of suffering. On this night, we are all gathered for a free concert in the park as sentient beings, quietly and elegantly sharing the discomfort and the related ecstasy of the human condition. 

It is a cool night, and Ms. Mercurious senses that I’m growing chilly in my shorts. She was wise enough to wear long pants. As she extends her lap blanket to over my bare leg,  I glance down, and realize that what she has offered me is the colorful quilt that my father-in-law was given as a patient undergoing treatment in the hospital for a terminal illness last year. After he passed away early this year, my wife adopted this blanket as a warm remembrance of her dad. This is the blanket with which she now covers my scarred knees, and the warmth it gives me is as much about its symbolic value as its colorful cotton threads. 

As the song ends, the aging biker applauds softly with genuine appreciation. He stands up, and with a slightly arthritic groan he walks past me out of the amphitheater. Our eyes meet as he walks by, and I see he now has a quiet smile on his face.



Sunday, August 14, 2016

No Time, Like Now

Since I am a Geezer, after all, it's no surprise that the last few years have put me face to face with various intimations of mortality. Recent years have seen us bid farewell to both my father and father-in-law at ages 83 and 90, respectively. Several good friends have become breast-cancer survivors, and even my recent knee injury, though little more than a glorified mechanical issue, has reminded me that the body physical is a resource that wears out eventually. Late last year, I turned 60 years old, and an instant later I'm now looking at my 61st birthday in a few months. It's not that 61feels particularly old to me, but it does remind me of the fact that when another 10 such moments or so, I will be 70 years of age, and at that point it becomes a little hard to ignore the reality.

All of which makes a Geezer consider quality of life and what goals and aspirations one should have when you can no longer pretend that you are not a Geezer.  I find the concept of a "bucket list" to be silly, at the very least; still, one can't ignore wondering where to put your energy and physical ability while the energy and physical ability is still there for the putting.

One of my best friends this week was faced with a medical decision as she concludes treatment for breast cancer. One option would have statistically increased the odds for a longer life, but only by a matter of low single-digit percentages. Following that course of action, though, would give her a 50-50 chance some rather serious side effects that could greatly compromise quality of life. Either way, these things are merely statistical odds, but she chose to think of the option as long life vs. good life. After a period of contemplation at the beach in Santa Monica, she is choosing to maximize the chances for a good quality of life at the possibility of making it shorter. With her good life, she wants to roam the country a bit with a camper trailer she owns, perhaps traveling with her granddaughters from time to time. She wants to write books, and meet people and see things she's not yet met or seen.

Which is a very admirable thing, I believe. And this makes me wonder a bit what I hope to do with the 10 or 15 or perhaps 20 decent years of Geezerhood ahead (for the males in my clan, 80 years of age is a pretty ancient patriarch).

The goals, I realize, are pretty modest and accomplishable. I want to spend some time roaming the southwest US, where the desert relaxes me and connects me to a sense of the earth's majestic age like no other landscape. I also want to spend time in the mountains again—either in Colorado, Canada, or Alaska, where I sense the incredible drama of time. To see some places I've not yet seen,  I want to travel some places with my bride, to other places with good friends. I want to be the daycare provider for grandchildren. I want to once again own a friendly dog.

And I want to walk every street in Minneapolis.

I'm not sure where this last aspiration came from, but I'm sure it has to do with the fact that I've been almost unable to walk for the last month and am thus reminded of how precious physical mobility is. I checked into this, and learned that there are just over 1200 miles of officially sanctioned streets in Minneapolis proper, and doing the math reveals that it should be easily possible to walk this territory over the next 10 years. A pace of 120 miles a year is, after all, less that 2.5 miles a week. In good times, I probably walk that much each day.

So on a pure distance basis, this is laughably easy, though of course in practice it means driving to various neighborhoods, some of which are not particularly safe. And it means doing it on minus-20 degree days in mid-winter. And on days when it is raining. And on some streets that are barely streets at all, but cruddy little alleys behind railroad tracks, etc. etc.  Still it's a modest goal, really.

My son and I were hanging out yesterday. He was, I think, still caring for the invalid in some manner. For the first few weeks of surgical recovery, the family was taking pains not to leave me alone, and with my wife gone for the day, he showed up at the house once again yesterday. I explained to him that I now have limited mobility in the bad knee, enough to let me fold the leg into the car and actually drive myself, but we ended up hanging out anyway, watching the olympics. Then we took a drive to get milk shakes and go to Barnes and Noble. On the way, I mentioned my goal of walking Minneapolis over the next few years, and upon leaving the bookstore, he glanced into my shopping bag and the street map I'd purchased. Shaking his head and said. "I should have figured. You're gonna cross off the streets on this map as you walk them, aren't you?"

There is no time like the present. Early this morning, I drove up to the far reaches of north Minneapolis and walked around three whole blocks, with knee brace unlocked for 30% range of motion. My speed should get better with time.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Slow Down

Three weeks ago, the universe decided to issue one of its lessons to me, using its pesky and often annoying "laws of physics." The lesson was: "Slow down, you dummy."

The circumstances of the lesson?  On the July 4 weekend, while racing to change clothes in order to join a beach party and begin social consumption of some very fine Scotch with a good friend, I slipped on the basement stairs at my mother-in-law's house. (Mind you, no whiskey had yet been consumed.) When my left heel bounced down two steps and met the immovable object of the concrete slab floor, my patella tendon in the knee snapped loose, launching my left knee cap up under the skin of my lower thigh. The patella tendon is what secures your tibia to the rest of your leg musculature, and without it your leg is about as useful as that of a marionette that has had its strings cut. It flops around like a really big chunk of pasta.

Sow down! the universe was saying to me. Slow down, you dummy, or I'm gonna hurt you. There, you had it coming.

What ensued, of course, was surgery and the prospect of a long recovery that will occupy the remaining weeks of summer and all of the autumn. The irony of this was that the universe issued to me exactly the same message six years ago, when a similar accident on a different set of steps executed exactly the same injury to  the other knee. At that time, I was hurrying to get steaks on the grill at a father's day picnic. So I darned well should have already learned this lesson.

The next months will see this lesson from the universe will be reinforced and reiterated,  because surgery for tendon reattachment and the subsequent recovery and rehabilitation makes "slowing down" mandatory. Nothing whatsoever happens fast with a knee immobilized for many weeks. If the universe seeks to impart such a lesson, this is indeed the injury to do it.

Doing things slowly is not in my nature, and so this is a hard lesson for me to learn. My whole life I have done things in a kind of restless frenetic manner that borders on manic impatience. I walk fast, I eat fast, I read fast, I work fast, I play games fast. There are Saturday mornings where I have pulled a thousand weeds from the garden, done the grocery shopping, and washed three loads of laundry, all before 9:00 am. Fast.

I have taken a kind of perverse pride in this speediness, and it's true that in some cases this pace has served me well. In the professional world, completing tasks quickly is usually a very good thing, and my speediness has never compromised quality in an overly harmful way. In the business world, doing lots of work very well is much more valuable than doing very little to utter perfection. I have always been somewhat proud of the fact that I accomplish a lot, and do it quickly.

The universe does not agree with me, however, and as they say, pride goeth before a fall. In my case, literally.

Recuperating from knee surgery has seen me vacillate between being grumpy over not being able to do some things at all and not being able to do anything quickly, and increasing moments where I'm beginning to understand the merits of patient slowness. Virtually everything I do takes at least twice as long as it once did, and some things take even longer. Certain bathroom routines involve virtually disrobing from the waist down to accommodate a massive leg brace, and putting on shoes can take me five minutes or more. A simple walk around the block was a 30 minute endeavor the first time I did it, and making a meal is a painstakingly slow process.

But there's nothing for it but acceptance, which I am doing ever so gradually and a little grudgingly. There are two ways to approach such a reality, I'm finding. My natural impulse initially was to be annoyed by the whole thing, and indeed some of the time this has been my reaction: grumpiness bordering on melancholy. Gradually, though, I find there are meditative virtues to the slow life. If it takes you 15 minutes to walk a hundred yards,  you begin to see things in the flower beds, the houses, that you never saw before. If it takes you several minutes to walk past a single home, the opportunity to meet the homeowner and strike up a meaningful converstation is much better.

Each act of walking become an exercise in meditation, if you are utterly focused on every movement. When just  preparing for a shower takes 15 minutes, the feel of warm water cascading over sore muscles is enjoyable indeed. The other day, it took the better part of an hour to pick fresh zucchini, tomatoes, kale and green beans from the garden while teetering precariously on crutches. But my word, the salad and shrimp stir-fry tasted better than I ever remember.

Today, I found myself in one of my grumpy moods for awhile, annoyed at all the things I cannot do at the moment. But a few minutes ago I joined my wife on the deck, where we sat in web chairs next to one another but facing in opposite directions, reading our respective books.  I glanced over at the teak bench and for moment and despaired over the fact that it badly needs to be refinished and that I cannot do it at the moment. But relaxing into the reality of this enforced inactivity,  I began to admire the look of the grayed wood,and found a strange reassurance in the fact that nature always has its way with mankind's efforts to preserve things and have things our own way. Settling into the moment, I leaned back to admire the wisteria vine that has formed a green nest of the deck, and recognized that in the shifting wind patterns and cool temperatures today there is a hint of September coming.

And for this moment, anyway, I found complete satisfaction in the slow life.





Thursday, May 19, 2016

Beauty by Accident



As some of you have gleaned, gardening is for me a meditative tool for understanding things about myself and about the workings of the world.

My level of calm and contentment at any given moment is in almost direct proportion to the time it takes me to get the dirt out from under my fingernails at the end of the day. (A TMI tidbit: repeated vigorous fingertip lathering of the wiry-haired naughty regions during a shower is almost as good as a toothbrush or nail brush for getting dirt out from under the fingernails. Much better than shampooing the more silky-haired noggin.)

But I digress. What I'm observing while now sitting in an adirondack chair in the shade today is how often beautiful things evolve by accident

Several years ago I planted several shrubs in a small front-yard island to form a kind of backdrop for a little concrete birdbath. The intent was to shield the birdbath from the street, but to make it visible   from the house. Among the shrubs there is nine-bark, a flowering spirea, a yellow-leaved barberry, and some other shrub whose name I've forgotten (yes, I'm that type of gardener). There was also a weigela that unfortunately went to that great compost heap somewhere along the way. A clump of volunteer monkshood has grown up it its place—not a shrub, but big enough to be kind of shrub-like in its impact, and also providing dark indigo flowers in the frigid fall, well after the first hard frost.

The little shrub island has languished a little for years, barely acceptable but never achieving the look I hoped. At various times I considered major renovation on the mess, but because I didn't really see in my mind's eye a replacement goal, I just waited. Historically, I've not been a patient man by nature, but ever so gradually over the years I've come to understand that change is inevitable enough as it is. The world changes between each blink of the eye anyway,  so I no longer feel all that compelled to speed change along unless some inspirational idea hatches to drive me to action. "If you don't know what to do, wait until you do," a friend once mentioned to me. And I agree.

As I look at the shrub grove now, though, I find that it has evolved into something resembling perfection, at least for this moment. The shrubs form a solid mass of backdrop leaves shielding the street and framing the little bird bath statues and iris in the foreground. Its foliage colors complement one another in a way that pleases me, especially in that amber light near dawn or dusk. Several little songbird families have taken up within the dense leaves (my favorite is a pair of chickadees clearly nesting within), and a white-tailed rabbit has a den somewhere inside, too. The presence of a rabbit is itself not a happy thing for a gardener who grows lilies or lupine, but the damn little beast makes my wife and daughter smile, and for this moment, at least, the whole vignette produces an effect that seems quite perfect to me.

This is the way gardening has been for me—the way life has been, for that matter. Perfection very often erupts almost by accident out of ingredients that just a little while before were clearly, and sometimes extremely, flawed. Better late than never, patience has become a decided virtue for me as old age begins to dawn. Lacking an inspirational idea to guide, my best decisions have been to watch  and wait until things inevitably evolve into something entirely different and sometimes wonderful. After all, you can always leap into action if things turn to real crap.

Critics will point out that the pleasant little shrub grove would never have happened if I had not planted those shrubs some years ago—an act of deliberate will, and hardly accidental.  True enough, I grant you.  But then I would point out that this present beauty would not exist if I'd rushed into a an act of replacement too quickly, simply because the plantings failed to obey my immediate will.

And it's also quite true that our acts of will don't always get it exactly right. There is still (and always) an element of accident that steers the most deliberate of plans. After all, this little snapshot of perfection I perceive today doesn't exactly resemble that vision I had six years ago.

In my perfect vision, there were no rabbits in the garden, just red-tailed hawks to manage the rabbits.