Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Final Memory Before Shifting Gears....

I wanted to express thanks to those of you who listened and responded so kindly to my reveries and observations around the terminal illness of my father, and to close out the story for you.

Dad passed away three weeks ago, quietly in his sleep. Altogether, it wasn't a bad death—several months from diagnosis to ending allowed us to say our goodbyes in all necessary ways. And it was swift enough that Dad did not suffer for very long from a disease (pancreatic cancer) which is known to be rather brutal. His steadfastness and dignity during this time was notable, and gives me something to shoot for somewhere down the road when I face the end game myself.

Dad wasn't an unusual man, really—not a fascinating or heroic figure, except in the way that fathers always seem heroic and larger than life to their sons. He certainly had his flaws. But he was an exceptionally devoted and dependable man, a good and decent human being. In the final measure, we should all be so lucky as to leave that reputation when we pass away. And his final month or so was spent in a very dignified, almost elegant manner. As the minister (who happens to be my step-sister) said at his funeral, his example taught us much about how to die well.

So I'll leave you with one final memory of Dad before leaving it be and returning to other subjects in the future. It's time to get back to the business of living, as there's no reason to obsess on what is inevitable anyway.

In 1958 my father left his stint as a Navy helicopter pilot and moved back to Minnesota to take a job as a math teacher in a small county-seat town in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  Raising a family with two young boys (soon to be three) was challenging, to say the least. Public school teachers have never been paid well, and in the late 50s the pay was so lean that he struggled took a second job as a county assessor to get approved for an $6,000 mortgage to build our first house. Though he had very little money, this first-generation son of inexhaustible Norwegian immigrant farmers had unlimited energy, and he would need it. Young boys need a lot of attention, and my mom was an insecure turbulent, 20-year old girl barely past childhood herself in those days. Dad had his hands full.

Before the real house, our first home in Red Wing was a small used house trailer plunked down on a small piece of land he bought from a local dairy farmer seven miles south of town. The setting was a wonderfully picturesque ancient river valley nestled among limestone bluffs. Many thousands of years ago, the deep valley was carved by melting glaciers—the same geologic action that carved the nearby Mississippi River valley.  When I climbed those bluffs as a boy, I could see the entire geologic history like it was yesterday’s story.

The little township we lived in was called Hay Creek, aptly named because the tiny stream running through the bottom of the valley on its way to the Mississippi River was (and still is) lined with alfalfa hay fields attached to the lovely dairy farms scattered about.  It was an ideal location for my Dad to settle, for it certainly must have reminded him of the diary country in the far northwestern portion of the state where he was raised.

If the geographic location was ideal, the economic conditions where a struggle. The two-acre garden Dad established wasn’t a hobby, but the source much of the food we ate in the early days. I recall times when, if we wanted to drive to town and have root beer floats at the local A & W, we had to search the cushions of the couch, the crevices of the car seats, for spare change. We couldn't afford a private phone line yet; we shared a party line with three other neighbors in the area. I was approaching high school before I had my first store-bought haircut; until then Dad clipped our hair himself by seating us on a stool and shearing us with an electric trimmer. This wasn’t poverty, really, just a lean, young family making ends meet in the late 1950s and early 60s, like so many others. It's not a lifestyle my own kids ever knew, though. Sometimes we forget how well-cushioned the typical middle-class lifestyle is today. 

The small mortgage Dad qualified for in 1959 was enough to start the little one-and-a-half story house nestled near the base of the bluff, but not to finish it. We lived in the basement at first, as Dad painstakingly finished the small second-story himself, where the two small additional bedrooms and a half-bath would be located. A few years later he would then be able to afford to add a small room addition to the back of the house, where we would enjoy the luxury of a family room with an actual fireplace.

The location was ideal for boys growing up. We roamed the fields and nearby woods, played with the kids with other young families who also bought building sites from Howie, the farmer. It’s that home that gave me a familiarity and love of natural landscape that remains with me today. The nearby pastures were filled with huge, gentle Holstein dairy cows that trimmed down the dense brush and turned it into nicely groomed groves where young boys could play without the constant fearful supervision that plagues today’s families. The only danger was from stepping in cow dung, or more accurately, stepping in cow dung then forgetting to clean off your shoes before going indoors for the night.  The many farm animals around the area, and especially the huge gentle horses and dairy cows, made nature seem like an immense nurturing maternal force, and to this day I’m never so relaxed as when roaming somewhere deep in a rural countryside.

A particular memory about my dad stands out and speaks volume about the kind of man he was. Directly behind our house ran a deep watershed gully that separated our house from the farmer’s fields running up to the edge of the big bluffs. We owned the wooded land just beyond the gully and just before the alfalfa fields began, so one summer as diversion for sons he couldn’t afford to regularly treat to ballgames or movies, Dad cleared a large camp site a fifty yards or so from the house. He build a diagonal picket wind-break fence, constructed a big fire-pit from limestone rocks carried up from the bottom of the gully, then found a big camel-hair couch and armchair and somehow hauled them by hand across a thirty-foot deep rocky gully, back up onto the flat area of the camp site. He did all this himself, because at six years old I wasn’t much help.   My dad couldn’t afford a lot in the early days, but he sure did have energy to spend.

There’s where we spent our family evenings in the summer and warm autumn days hearing stories of Irish and Norwegian immigrants, hearing tales of the WWII years—which were recent history in those days—and listening to my mother tell ghost stories vivid enough to scare the bejeesus out of you. We heard Dad talk about the atom bomb tests he witnessed as a pilot in the Nevada desert; about what occupied Japan was like in the years after the wars. We sat there deep into the night until the embers faded and the greenish flicker of fireflies filled the woods, then threw waterproof taps over the couch and chair, and followed the dark trail back through the gully and up to the house.

Eventually we boys became engaged in school sports, found girlfriends, then went off to college.  My parents moved away from Hay Creek township and into a real town, and we lost track of the old neighbors. Howie, the nearby farmer, got sick and passed away, and the dairy herds that had groomed the woods were sold to other farmers. The gully transformed back into a wild, bramble-filled ditch, no longer suitable for kids to play in.

Many, many years later after my mother died, I returned back to that valley one day and climbed the bluff to look over the valley again, high above the old home. Then I hacked my way down through the thickets and tramped around the place where I thought the campsite must have been located. There was nothing left that I could find, really. The windbreak fences had long since decayed away, as had the wood and fabric of the old couch and armchair. I could not even find the rocks of the fire pit, and I began to wonder if I had imagined those wonderful times.

Then, kicking through the thick layer of decayed leaves and  vegetation, up poked some rusty metal. I picked it up and realized that I had found a section of coil spring from the cushions of a big overstuff couch, the couch that a young school teacher had carried on his back across a deep gully in 1961, as he tried to build a place for his young sons to have fun.

That rusty old metal spring now hangs in my garage to remind me of those times. When I glance at it, I always wonder  if, when I’m very old, my own kids will have some memory of me that even hints at the level of energy and sacrifice that was an everyday thing for my father.





Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bedside Reverie

From Friday to Monday, we sat vigil at Dad's bedside, until emotional fatigue and the opinion of the doctor sent us back to Minneapolis to rest. We're told that Dad has come back from the immediate brink, and that his core vital functions are now just stable enough that he could now last as much as a week or so. Further, he's no longer aware of our presence, and seems to rest better in quiet than when constantly attended. My brother and I are badly in need of recharged batteries, so we headed back to Minneapolis knowing that a last return trip out to far southwestern Minnesota is coming pretty soon. Sitting bedside by a dying parent gives you a lot of time to think, and in between periods of sadness, I found myself wondering a lot about the faculty we call personality—what is it that creates the "person-ness" of an individual being.

At the opposite polls of ideas about what constitutes a personality are the clinical scientific definitions on the one hand,  and the romantic, spiritual ones on the other.

The first theory would have us believe that the individual "self" or "soul" is really in the final measure just a complex and sophisticated interaction of chemical signals and genetics—a model that is ultimately understandable through scientific means. The other pole would have us believe the soulful personality is something transcendent, an entity that can't be explained empirically, but only grasped spiritually.

Oddly, as I watch Dad's unconscious face, the first explanation would be a little more reassuring to me. Seeing the flitting emotional expressions that cross his face unconsciously, I would be comforted to think that these are just residual electro-chemical impulses, and not expressions of a soul or personality trapped in a biological organism that is steadily ceasing to function. But watching these expressions, I see just too much of Dad's individuality, his person-ness, to allow me the first interpretation, and this makes it hard to watch these final days. Like a new-born infant sleeping, Dad's face in semi-coma is a canvas on which a variety of emotions appear from time to time  In the slight wry grimace, I see his disgusted scolding of me when I was 17 and coming home after drinking beer with friends on a camping trip. In his low chuckle, I hear him laughing with delight when my kids, his grandchildren, did something precocious to to amuse him. In the furrowed brow and intense look of concentration, I see him watching the nightly news during the Vietnam days wondering what the hell was going on in this country.

Now, for the first time, I really see the strong resemblance to each of my brothers. My youngest brother in Dad's mouth. My second brother in his eyes and forehead. A little bit of my own kids in his expressions. I still don't really see much of myself in him, though others have told me they spot me as his son from a mile away.

There is just too much person-ness there to explain it as mere neurological chemical activity. What will happen to that person-ness in the next few days? When he does pass away, that personality will certainly continue to dwell in some fashion in all of us who know him. And I still have the strong intuition that there's more to it than that.  When I look around at the natural world, I see no evidence that anything, anywhere, dies without returning. Spring follows winter,  growth sprouts from decay, producing seeds that lead to green growth and more decay, and more life.  Neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, and it seems only logical that the energy of Dad's person-ness will be going somewhere in the very near future. 'Only symbolically,' some skeptics might say to me gently. 'Not literally.'  To which I would reply that symbolic truth is the most legitimate kind.

On the long drive home through the agricultural prairie, massive recent rains have left the ground completely saturated. No only are the marshes full, but the low areas of every planted field have become small lakes. Rains so heavy that that they've made the national news wires and closed some of the highways we normally travel on.  This water is now slowly moving toward creeks and rivers under the gentle tug of gravity, and already back in St. Paul, some of the water that fell here in the last few days is making the Mississippi River rise toward major flooding. Eventually the water vapor that fell here as rain will become part of the Atlantic ocean again, and sometime after that, this moisture will fall here or elsewhere as rain again, and will begin another journey back to the ocean. The substance of the water vapor will not have changed at all in all those iterations, and every present action ripples into the future. As Einstein seems to have believed, past, present and future really exist simultaneously, if we had the faculties to see it.

The heavy rains and temporary lakes out here in southwestern Minnesota have also brought out lots of wild life, especially birds. Many are feeding off the worms, insects and small animals that have been brought up out of the ground when it became full of water. On the telephone wires, in the ponds, on the fence posts and in the skies I recognize fresh water pelicans, egrets, meadowlarks, kingfishers, red wing blackbirds,  red-tail hawks, bald eagles.

I knew the names of all these birds and many more before I was five years old, because they are things my father taught me before I even started school.  And in musing about the fact of fathers teaching their children things about the world, I have the answer to my questions.





Friday, June 13, 2014

Aiming at the Target

Here in Minneapolis, the Target Corporation has long been something of a sacred cow, given that its corporate headquarters are located here, about three blocks from where I now work. Not only do they employ many hundreds of people here in downtown, but they have also been notably good corporate citizens within the community and across the nation. A sizable amount of philanthropy comes through the Target corporation, both here and nationally. Most significantly for me is the ongoing contribution to America’s schools, which totals many millions of dollars a year. The corporation can be the “target” for some legitimate criticism (we’ll get to that in a minute), but they are overall a fair employer that offers opportunity to senior citizens, college students seeking part-time work, employment for physically disabled workers, etc.

For me and many others, they have also served as something of an “anti-Walmart” offering the same products, but served up in a more pleasant atmosphere and finding success with far fairer labor practices, both domestically and overseas. Yes, you might be able to buy your gargantuan bottle of laundry soap for 15 cents less at Walmart, but shopping Target lets me feel that my savings isn’t coming at the expense of old workers denied health insurance, women denied advancement opportunities, or small children laboring in third world sweatshops. It’s not that clear-cut, of course, and I’m sure deep probing shows that Target has some questionable ethics, too. Having read a couple of biographies of Sam Walton, though, makes me more than willing to pay a little bit more.

Recently, the rose has started to fade a little for the Target Corporation. The disaster with credit card information being hacked was highly embarrassing, of course, though I suspect we will gradually learn that this kind of thing has been happening to many other (though less prominent) retailers, as well. Target’s reaction to this has been, I think, ethical and honest, and I frankly don’t really fault them for this event.

But other small things about Target are starting to bug me. They’ve tightened the qualifications for offering health insurance to part-time employees, for example, though people in the know tell me that they are helping those employees with the costs of insuring under the Affordable Care Act. Recently I realized that my local Target stores no longer even offer you a choice between paper and plastic bags—as a cost saving move they now will only bag your merchandise in cheaper but environmentally questionable plastic. And the increasingly drone-like business culture of the corporate office has become more obvious. In downtown Minneapolis, the young Target employees sometimes resemble Stepford wives in their uniform appearance and behavior as they mill through the streets at lunch time.

Seriously? Target thinks this is okay?
But the real kicker for me has come in the corporation’s cowardly response to the gun lobby, as rabid gun enthusiasts  poke their fingers in the eyes of the rest of us by carrying their loaded guns into retail Target stores.  In a feeble effort to offend no one whatsoever, the response of Target has been to shiver timidly and say that they will always comply with whatever the local ordinances allow. They could, of course, simply say that guns are not allowed on the premises of Target stores, but because this runs the risk of a possible boycott by gun enthusiasts, they look the other way and blame governments for whatever policies are in place.

Guns carried into retail mass merchandise stores seems like something you’d expect to see in other mass merchandise behemoths, and you now get the feeling that Target is not longer proudly serving as the anti-Walmart, but instead has chosen to emulate the corporation from Bentonville, Arkansas. The story is not yet concluded, fortunately. A recent vote at Target Corporate gave a vote of confidence to the current board of directors, and that gives me hope that they’ll yet double-down on their practice of good citizenship. I'll watch closely.


But I have to tell you, the first time I see somebody wearing a Duck Dynasty ball cap and carrying an assault rifle in my local Target store, my business goes to Costco once and for all.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Citizens of 4F, June 10, 2014

On the 4F bus this morning, I see an unusually large number of Pin-Twit Faces.

The hybrid buses that are now the norm in Minneapolis are configured so the back third of the vehicle is raised above the front, creating the space that houses the huge electric batteries for the bus. When you sit near the front of this rear platform, you can look down majestically on the front 2/3 of the bus and the passengers who sit there.

This morning, at least nine Pin-Twits sitting ahead of me spend the 35-minute bus ride with thumbs in frantic navigation on smart phones, checking their Pinterest, their Twitter, their Facebook feeds and who knows what else. Their free hands usually grip a Starbucks iced coffee, while the opposing thumb goes through frantic calisthenics that amaze me. Social media platforms seem to spring up daily, and I can no longer keep up with them. Our social media person in the marketing department at the office told me recently that Instagram and Google-plus are the coming rage....I have no idea what they are, really,  but the combined arsenal of all the social media platforms is certainly enough to occupy this group on the bus this morning.

I try not to be judgmental about this, but of course can't help myself. I'm now at that age where I sense that personal growth is more about emptying myself of irrelevant data and knowledge to make room for something more meaningful, and I can't help but wonder if in 20 years or so these 20- and-30 something adults might be in the same boat. Is the difference between these young adults and old geezers like me a cultural thing, an age thing, or merely a temperamental difference? Approaching 59 years of age, I'm aware that statistically I will likely be present for perhaps 25 or 35 more of these brief Minnesota springs, and I find myself paying very close attention to them. I can't imagine the appeal of burying myself never-ending Facebook feeds on a smart phone while spring passes me by outside.

But I'm aware that young adults are wired a little differently due to being raised with this technology. My daughter electronically multi-tasks like a bandit, and seems to be entirely well-adjusted and happy in life. She knows far more than I did at that age. And who am I to say that being connected to the entire world is somehow less valid than a narrower connection to the immediate environment? Years ago during one of the NASA missions, I realized that I could pull up a live image of the surface of Mars on my phone whenever I wanted. Certainly there is magic in being connected to the entire world whenever you want. Maybe it's just not my temperament to need or want this.

I have fair amount of digital savvy for an old geezer, but there's no way I could pull off what my daughter does, nor would I want to. There are moments when work pressures force me to be connected to email at all hours, and it's not a good thing for me. Clearly I am constructed to be happier when unconnected; I think this is more true for our generation than for this younger crowd, but perhaps even more for me individually.

Just below me, a young woman has a right thumb of Olympic talent. As I secretly glance over her shoulder, she goes through Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and several other media platforms, scrolling so fast that the screen is a blur.  Periodically she tries to shut the phone off, but after a few seconds is drawn back to it. At one point, I'm fascinated to see her scroll through at least 50 photos of the British princess. Outside the bus on Bryant Avenue, I see a front garden where a clever gardener has planted Siberian iris among the huge blue leaves of a hosta I recognize as Elegans, thereby creating what appears to be a new species. It is something I might try myself. To me, this is the real thing, but I'm quite sure if I pointed it out to the young woman, she'd see the Princess as a far more relevant thing.

Each to their own, I guess. But I can't help wondering what a 90-year old addicted to social media will look like. Years from now, I suppose our nursing home will be filled with oldsters with huge oversized tablets so that they can study images of a decrepit old Queen of England.




Friday, June 6, 2014

Citizens, NYC, June 1, 2014


• At the 9/11 Memorial, an hour walk from my hotel to lower Manhattan, I wait on a stone bench between the somber pools with their rushing water for the museum to open. At this hour, the plaza has more security guards and NYPD officers than it does tourists. After 13 years, we're still not fully over our nervousness about that event; signs warn visitors against any behavior likely to draw a crowd or create controversy. Across the way, the new tower is still being completed, though the outer shell is pretty much done.  More than twice the size of the largest building we have in Minneapolis, it is a geometric study in opposing green reflective triangles.  It is a splendid building, and the whole scene leaves you with a combined sense of the nation's pride, fear, arrogance, and resilience. Years ago I came down to this site many months after 9/11,  and the scene then was still one of horror, even though the bulk of the rubble had by that point been removed down to ground level. Back then, I had witnessed the excavation site from a viewing platform constructed in front of St. Paul's Trinity churchyard; the metal fences around the church had still been plastered with photos of the missing, and the surrounding buildings had been draped in sheets of black cloth like enormous tombstones.

Today,  although some of us are clearly in a somber frame of mind remembering that morning or recalling earlier visits to ground zero, two couples approach me and hand their cameras to me with requests that I take their pictures in front of one of the pools with the new tower in the background. Eventually, I suppose, the site will lose its somberness and become just another tourist site for visitors. What is it, I wonder, that makes so many people want to have their pictures taken at historical sites?  It's something I've never fully understood—do they fear they will not remember the place unless they have photos of themselves present there?

A tour group from Italy arrives, with a leader waving an Italian flag to keep his charges focused. One young girl among them wears a hijab, and she looks profoundly uncomfortable being here. Or am I projecting this upon her? Maybe she is entirely free of any feeling of cultural guilt as a Muslim from Italy.  It would be nice if that were so, but I see other visitors in the plaza pointing her out.

The museum itself is a terrifically interesting and dignified exhibit. Thousands of artifacts and hundreds of informational displays. The one that sticks in my memory is a single melted and burned driver's license found on the streets below and now exhibited behind glass—the license of a passenger on one of the planes.  This is one of the best museums I've ever seen.

• In the late afternoon, I happen upon Madison Square Park across from the Flatiron building, where a Filipino-American celebration is going on in the park and on the adjacent segment of Madison Avenue, which has been shut down for the day. I am 5 ft. 7" tall, and I'm interested to find that I'm well above average in height in a crowd of Asian men. The pretty young Filipino women seem to have a proscribed costume for the day: reflective aviator sunglasses and New York Yankees ball caps, with their long black hair pulled back through the opening in the back. It's an indication of the sheer size of this city's population that a Filipino celebration can bring out so many thousands of people.

• In Times Square in the early evening, the huge crowd parts suddenly, and I see a fully naked young woman, clearly enhanced by surgery, who has been dusted head to toe in green chalk or paint, the color of the Statue of Liberty. In her left hand, she extends an ordinary flashlight overhead like a torch. Instead of a liberty crown, though, she wears a headpiece that looks more like Christ's crown of thorns. She is accepting tips from people who want to have their pictures taken with her—a whole different kind of tourist photography.  (No, I do not get my picture taken.) Just up the street from this, a group of Disney characters are also soliciting tips for photos. I'm pretty sure they are not authorized by Walt's corporation. Mickey's knees are dirty with street grime.

• New Yorkers are renowned for the speed with which they conduct their lives, but it seems not to be true on Sundays. All day long, the pace is leisurely, with pedestrians moving at a pace that could barely be called a saunter. At 6:00 am, I have the streets largely to myself, but not exclusively so. This is, after all, the city that never sleeps. The various Starbucks shops along Madison Avenue are open, and at one coffee shop, a citizen wearing Dockers and expensive loafers comes out the door with his latte grande, and stops to drop coins into the cup of a street citizen sitting on the window ledge outside.  Exchanging a few familiar words, they call each other by name and wish one another a good day before the expensive loafers continue up Madison Avenue and the street citizen smiles after him and hefts his cup of coins.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Citizens of Sun Country

On my early morning connecting flight, I find myself sitting next to two Somali kids, about 6 years and 8 years of age. The mother sits behind me with two other children, even younger than these two, and she's got her hands full. The little boy sitting in the middle seat next to me is terrifically talkative, and we're not even belted in before I know that this is the very first airplane flight for either of them, that they were born in the US but have never been to Somalia, that his little sister is a genuine pain in his butt, that they are connecting through  to catch a second plane. Others in the family, including a grandmother, are apparently further back in the plane

They want to know everything about every aspect of the flight, so I explain what I can to them, the various sounds they are hearing, what they will feel as they take off, how long the first flight will be (barely time to get up before we'll come down again), and where we are on the map in the back of the airline magazine, where they will be going as they head to Africa. Several times the little girl wants to get out of her seat, but so I have to explain to her  that it's not a good idea, and I point out the seatbelt sign overhead and explains its symbolism.  This keeps her quiet, as she stares intently at the plastic illumination for virtually the whole flight.

The little boy is having trouble with the entertainment system on the seat back ahead of him, so I show him how to plug his earphones into the arm rest (he's brought his own), how to flip the dial on the control to access the various video and audio channels.

"Music," he says. " I would like to listen to music."

"What kind of music do you want?" I say. "They have many channels." I point out on the screen in front of him the options available.

He thinks for several seconds, then lights up. "I would like to hear Johnny Cash," he says. "That would be great."

We do find a country western channel for him, but I fear it will be full of today's western music icons: Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and all the rest. But 20 minutes into the flight suddenly I find a warm, sweaty earbud poked into my left ear. The boy beams up at me as I recognize "Burning Ring of Fire."

"See. Johnny Cash," he says with delight, and pops the earbud out of my ear and stuffs it back into his own. HIs liquid brown eyes twinkle at me.

What a country we live in.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Seasons

On the four-hour drive out to the Minnesota/South Dakota border to visit my failing father, the spirit you get from the landscape is one of renewal and rebirth. The middle of May is really just the start of spring in this northern climate, and the grass has just now become fully green, with vast stretches of bright yellow dandelions blanketing many of the fields. The trees are still a very light green because the buds have just opened. In some of the farm feedlots, the Holstein herds have given birth to some of the spring calves, and in the low-lying marsh areas, Canadian geese are already leading goslings around the shallows.

On higher ground, farmers driving $150,000 John Deere tractors have begun planting their fertile fields; here and there faint rows of seedling corn, sugar beets and soy beans have begun to sprout.

Look objectively, though, and you notice that it’s not all greenness and rebirth and fertility. On another field, a different farmer is plowing under the decaying, rotting stalks of last year’s corn crop, recycling the once-living organic material.  In the marshes, it is the decaying residue of cattails and marsh grasses where red wing blackbirds choose to nest. Every mile or so, some kind of creature killed by traffic is heaped on the shoulder of the highway—sometimes identifiable as a white tail deer or raccoon, but sometimes so battered and bloody that you can’t even tell what species you’re looking at. There are some farms dying too. Some farms are amazingly wealthy, but other places have been abandoned, with buildings that are falling in upon themselves. Graveyards of old tractors and threshing machines can be spotted rusting away in shelter belts of trees surrounding old farmsteads.  As a final reminder, it is Memorial Day weekend, and most of the tiny towns along the route have placed flags and banner spotlighting the local civic cemeteries, honoring the war dead.

At first, the recognition of how much death and decay exists alongside the fertility of spring is a little depressing to me, perhaps because of the nature of my visits with Dad these days. But then I begin to relax philosophically, and come to realize how natural it is for decay to exist alongside rebirth. They do go hand in hand, really, and in the words of Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds), there is a time for every purpose under heaven. 

It’s a little harder to keep this in mind when I reach the rest home in Hendricks Minnesota at midday. The feeling here in the hospice unit of the nursing home is of the human condition deep in late autumn, with the days of winter just around the corner. Spring is a long, long way off here in the inner halls of a modern American nursing home. It’s hard to avoid the recognition that these are places  where many of the elderly and sick come to die, and for the first hour or so, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but the spirit of demise here.

Dad is asleep in his chair when I arrive, doesn’t stir when I rub his arm and speak to him.  I let him sleep and just watch him, letting it be enough just to be present.  His breathing is labored, and periodically his arms and shoulders twitch and slightly convulse. His arms and shoulders have become quite bony and thin, but his calves and angles are puffy with edema. His overall color is becoming more ashen. But his hair is neatly combed, and even now has more dark than grey in it. He is cleanly shaven; he still does this himself each morning. Dad was always pretty meticulous about his personal grooming, a guy who would shower and shave before bed. And the only guy I ever knew who would scrub off the bottom of a lawn mower after each mowing.

But it’s a somber scene, frankly, and I have trouble seeing the “circle of life” at work here the way I did out on the open farm country. All I see is the nadir of that circle. But when Dad wakes up and sees me, a smile of recognition breaks across his face. Over the course of the next two hours, Dad is “present” some of the time, but often drifts off to a different place. “Who’s picking me up today?” he asks one minute, even though he’s not been any other place for many weeks now, and won’t go anywhere ever again. But then the next minute he’s asking me about my business travel, where I’ve been recently and where my next trip will take me. He asks about my kids, about my wife, asks if they ever found that jetliner in the south Pacific. Then he tells me that yesterday he took a tour bus ride down the St. Croix river with old Navy buddies. I don't disabuse him of the notion. These days, there's no particular harm in allowing dream/fantasy to encroach a little. The bus tour seems to have been a lot of fun.

Then I hear young laughter out in the hallway, and I look up to see two little grandchildren visiting their grandma in a nearby room. I glance outside Dad’s window to see wrens nesting in the bush outside. And on my father’s bulletin board is pinned a picture of my own kids, young adults now, a snap shot that was taken with my father when they took it upon themselves to drive four hours and visit him a few weeks ago.


The fact that my dad has lived his live, and lived it well, that is the reason I am here, and by extension it’s the reason my kids are here too.  To live, to exist on the planet, is also to die. You don’t get one without the other. So in a strange but real way, life and death are exactly the same thing.