Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Friday, April 4, 2014

Repent, all Ye Geezers!

—after a long, soul-searching period of reflection, The Professor returns to us today with thoughts on a subject of spiritual interest. It's about time, dead-beat. 

There are a number of privileges that accrue when one enters the ranks of “geezerhood.”  One of the primary privileges is that you can get away with being grumpy…in fact, people almost come to expect it of you.  I would argue, though, that it’s not necessarily grumpiness per se that defines a geezer—after all, a geezer has been known to wax rhapsodic about the excitement of spring training (for many of you, I must clarify, I suppose, I am referring to baseball here, not pruning grapevines). So reputation aside,  it’s clear that there are plenty of things that geezers are fond of—it's just that those things tend to be outmoded, out of date, or just plain deservedly unpopular.  Geezers feel the need to champion many of these things, often grumpily;  in a word, many geezers are contrarians.  So today, let me unpack the merits of something that most people tend to look at as a pronounced “downer.”  I’m referring, of course, to my favorite season: Lent.

Lent, in the Christian calendar, is a time of penitence and spiritual cleansing that occupies the forty days (plus six Sundays to make 46 days total) before Easter.  It starts out with a bang on Ash Wednesday, when we are told one of the few public utterances  you know instinctively to be true. As ashes are smudged on your forehead, you are encouraged in somber tones to “know that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” 

Were truer words ever spoken?  And yet, if you survey your typical member of the population and ask what they think about a season characterized by repentance and recognition of mortality, they’d probably reply (after asking if there WAS such a season and what its name was) “thanks, but no thanks.”  And we’re tempted to agree with them; it sounds pretty depressing. 

But the contrarian geezer says: “what a wonderful idea!”  If I recognize my own mortality, that gives me extra incentive to be thankful for the limited time I do have here.”  Good enough so far.  But what about all that repentance?  The very word would make my esteemed fellow geezer The Mathematician grind his teeth, thinking about the gloomy Lutheranism of his youth.  But at its very core repentance is one of the most affirming actions we can take.  At the core of repentance is an acknowledgement that we could have (or perhaps SHOULD have) done better. 

Oh sure, every once in a while we have to repent for things we really did: the two full cans of cashews that were polished off watching one NCAA tournament game; or for habitually driving 95 miles an hour through rush our in the HOV lane WITH NO ONE ELSE IN THE CAR!  Or for the 320,000 dollars you embezzled from your kids’ little league treasury (they shouldn’t have left that much money lying around…)  But for the most part, for most of us, most of the time, we repent not for those things that we did wrong, but rather those things that we could have done better, those people whom we might have treated with more respect or caring, or those actions we didn’t take that could have helped the world a bit.  We say to ourselves “I could have done better” and in return, we receive the message “that’s right, you could have…keep trying.”

So why do so many of us find this attitude gloomy?  My theory is that as a culture we have gotten so used to unconditional approval that an approval that is conditional on our repentence—on our vow to try to do better—is viewed as suspect, disappointing or even hostile.  It’s depressing to many of us.  But why should we view an encouraging ”you can do better” as depressing?  On the surface, those words would appear to be a very affirming vote of confidence.

As a kid, I did well in school, but whether the grade was a C or an A, the feedback I always received was always: “was it your best?”  Best is a pretty big word, and I suppose I technically lied (to myself and my parents) a number of times  when I responded “yes” to this question.  Nonethess, it was clear: part of the “deal” involved with being part of our family was that you strived to do your best.  You were praised, but usually with the proviso that you would strive to be even better next time—and our parents had confidence that we could do better.)

So are belief, confidence and encouragement “downers?”  They don’t seem to me to be depressing, unless you think you’re already as good as you can get (read: perfect) already.  In that case, don’t bother to repent—you’ve got much larger problems to deal with than getting ready for Easter.  But for most of us—the visibly, undeniably and sometimes flamboyantly imperfect—the encouragement of repentance might be just the thing we need to get through this gloomy, over-extended winter in which we find ourselves mired. 

Happy Lent.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Minnesota Cultural Scene

I drove to work this morning rather than taking the bus, and on the way, near the bus stop at 28th St. and Lyndale Avenue, the pickup truck in front of me sharply rear-ended the mid-vintage Pontiac in front of it. Having seen the whole thing,  I stopped the car and got out, thinking that I might offer clarity if there was any dispute as to what happened.

The Pontiac was very likely a total wreck, with the rear end crumpled up so far that the rear doors were inoperable and the rear wheels deformed so that this accident would need to be cleared by a tow truck. With some interest, I watched as the two drivers emerged from their vehicles and approached one another.

The first action was them shaking hands and introducing themselves. Then they turned to me as I approached and shook my hand, introducing themselves individually to me, too.

"Well, what do think happened there, do ya think?" said the guy who'd just been smashed from the rear.

"Well, ya know, I think maybe it was the ice. I thought I was brakin', but it was like nothing happened, ya know. Or I suppose my brakes might be bad."

"Ya, I suppose it could be either of dose things."

The whole exchange had no more passion to it than a customer ordering coffee from a clerk at Starbucks. A little disappointed but utterly unsurprised at the lack of drama, I soon continued on to the office.

This is an entirely normal scene in Minnesota. I witnessed at least a dozen road accidents this winter and only once did I witness anything like an angry reaction from violated and occasionally injured drivers.

The driver of that car had license plates from Illinois.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Teenager on the Internet, Part II

This story link provides an update to story recently posted about a teenage boy who posted an off-color joke/lie about being in a sexual relationship with a young female teacher:

In my previous post, I suggested that a public apology on the lad's part might do a lot to undo the damage, and indeed that's what's now happened. It occurred at a carefully staged  official press conference attended by not one, not two, but three lawyers representing the family, giving credence to my suspicion that this thing was now being orchestrated by lawyers sensing PR possibilities.

The end of the story has one of the family lawyers calling the school superintendent and chief of police "imbeciles" for levying the school suspension and suggesting that the kid's action might be a serious crime.  And there's now the hint that the family's lawyers might seek some sort of law suit against the school for mental damage caused to the boy by the "overreaction" on the part of school officials.

Back in the day, such an event would have been handled quite simply and maturely by a responsible parent marching the kid into the principal'[s office, calling the young teacher in, and having the boy apologize for being such a dumb-ass. But now in the day of on-line public dispersal of information, news media dying to create stories, and lawyers seeking talk-show publicity, this is what we've come to.

As the old joke goes, "What do you call 100 lawyers at the bottom of the sea?"

Answer:  "A good start."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Internet is Not a Video Game

An open message to kids and young adults who haven't yet got the message:

Facebook, Twitter and all other forms of internet-based social media exist in the real, adult world of cause-and-effect consequences. They are not video games from which you can punch the "reset" button if you don't like what's happening.

In the most recent local example of this, a popular young student-athlete in a nearby suburb of Minneapolis has been charged with a felony after he posted a comment on some kind of "confessional" web site where he stated he was having a sexual relationship with an attractive young female phys. ed. teacher in his high school.  He now claims this statement was meant facetiously, sarcastically, as a comment of the absurdity of what was transpiring on this web site. (That's possible, I suppose, but it frankly smacks of the kid's attempt to bluster his way out of big trouble.) But the consequences of his action involved the quote being distributed via Twitter to hundreds of people, which in turn lead to school administrators and police interrogating the bewildered gym teacher to her great humiliation and embarrassment. Once it became clear that the stories were entirely bogus, our young high schooler was first expelled from school, and now potentially faces felony charges for the harmful effects of his actions.

As my wife and I discussed this last night, we agreed that the problem here is that internet technology is really built by and for people who view it all as some kind of game and not part of the real world. When you hear hackers talk about their actions from prison cells, for example, they generally talk about not viewing what they did as real crimes, but just as interesting intellectual games they played against financial databases and national security web sites. Nobody seems to realize that the internet exists in a real adult world where actions have consequences.

I recall from our high school days both a very attractive female gym teacher and a couple of female academic teachers who were 6 or 7 years older than we were at the time and who were the subject of jokes and innuendo, too. But the difference between 1972 and today is that back then we whispered our distasteful jokes to a cafeteria table of five or six close friends. We wouldn't have dreamed of broadcasting  boastful lies to the entire school through the loudspeaker system. But in a world of Twitter and Facebook feeds, today's kids and young adults are broadcasting their every thought to the world at large. All internet-based communication applications should come with the following warning: "Say nothing that you don't want the entire world to hear."

The fact is that this single event, even if it was entirely innocent, will now follow the young man (and the teacher) for the rest of their lives. When interviewing potential employees these days, as a manger I of course do a cursory level of internet research. Can you imagine wanting to hire somebody who has this kind of thing in their background when you do a Google search of his name?

A subject for another essay is the somewhat puzzling response in the community where this event took place. Because the young man in question is a popular kid, captain of several sports teams, the community has united behind him with a petition of more than 2,000 names asking for his school expulsion to be reversed (I have an uneasy suspicion that this is so he can lead a sports team in playoff action). Yes, it's possible that felony charges might be overkill for this transgression. But a month or two of school suspension to teach the lad a lesson certainly doesn't seem inappropriate. We're not talking about a kid being suspended for having a pen knife in the glove box of his car parked in the school parking lot. This is real stuff; effectively an assault on the teacher.

The local chief of police commented on this, wondering why the support was mobilizing behind the young man and not the young teacher who has been so badly humiliated and embarrassed by the event. And why is it, I wonder, that the young man and his family are maintaining such dead-fast silence. If I'm this kid's father, I grab him by the ear and lead him to a microphone. A public apology for the unintended consequences of his action might go along way to justifying a response of understanding and leniency toward him.

No doubt the family is acting on the advice of lawyers, who as we all know exist in their own make-believe world.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Dirty Sign of the Coming Spring...

The first sign that this brutal winter might eventually give way to Spring was seen in downtown Minneapolis today....

At the end of the day in the parking ramp where I park, the concrete floor was covered with hundreds of crusty, dirty globs of hardened of ice and snow born from automobile undercarriages and wheel-wells, loosened by the first above-freezing temperatures in almost two months.

In fact, the last month of winter in Minnesota is known by a native American word from the Dakota Sioux tribe that translates thusly:  "the time of the snow boogers."

Spring, it is out there somewhere.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Citzens of LAX, Jan. 31, 2014

In the waiting lounge for gate 41, terminal A of Los Angeles international airport, a young family from Texas sits near me in the isolated cul de sac of chairs at the back end of the room. Dad wears a ball cap that says Texas on the brim, and from the evidence of a Disneyland tote bag, I assume the family has   been vacationing in southern California and is returning home to Dallas, where I will be pausing only briefly on a layover to Minneapolis.

They are an attractive, affluent family. The father has the muscular, healthy bearing of a serious weekend athlete, the mother is thin and lithe, perhaps a yoga practitioner. Their casual clothing is expensive, from top brand names, and the kids, a girl about 10 and a boy about 8, each have their own Ipad encased in a soft leather protective sleeve. It is a picture book family; the parents bear a slight resemblance to a young Kevin Costner and Christie Brinkley, and the kids could be models for television ads.

But it's quickly apparent that there is some kind of tension here. Mom sits down with the two kids on either side, and Dad offers her a piece of fruit, which she declines with a terse shake of her head without looking at him. She focuses, somewhat defiantly, on her smart phone Twitter or email feeds; her thumb scrolls briskly. He sits down near his family but slightly removed from them, a weariness evident on his face. 

Within a few minutes of scrolling on her phone, abruptly, Mom breaks into quiet tears and quickly goes to the restroom to compose herself. I wonder, briefly, if there's been some sort of family emergency back in Texas; perhaps it's worry causing the obvious unhappiness in the little family. But when Mom returns from the rest room, eyes dry, makeup fixed, and lips tightly pressed together, the anger at the husband is clear. She refuses to look him in the eye, and instead draws her children toward her from each side, the universal move of a mother retreating from her husband—nesting tightly with the kids to the deliberate exclusion of  the father. 

Dad is decidedly miserable, and when he glances my way and see that I've noticed their family drama, he reddens and looks even more woeful. It's impossible to know, of course, but I wonder what his offense was. Am I eavesdropping on one of those entirely normal little moments of family tension brought on by holiday fatigue and too much frenzied activity?  Or is this a deeply ingrained family problem that threatens more seriously? Did he forget a camera on the cab to the airport,  or is he sleeping with a secretary? 

At that moment the announcement comes beckoning families with children to board early. Fifteen minutes later as I board and move through first class on the way to coach, I see all four members of the family sitting across a full row in the luxury section. Mom and Dad are each in window seats far apart, with the kids in the aisle seats. They are still playing games on their Ipads, but I can see now that they're uneasily aware of the tension in their parents, and have focused on their electronics to avoid the discomfort of a family that  has ceased to be nurturing.

The reality for this beautiful family is a little ugly right now. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Fetish of Freedom

Well, two posts ago, my friend Mercurious  has gone off on a self-described rant on the subject of U.S. –Syria relations—and for a change he makes total sense.  He also seems to have struck a nerve with the readership.  As a designated know-it-all (professor) I can’t resist my itchy fingers…I’ve got to try to work through something regarding our very problematic place in the geo-political world.  As an early commentator so appropriately asked: where do we go from here? 

Where indeed?  American foreign policy has a long history of getting itself into complicated situations that when analyzed later have beginnings that are difficult to understand and exits that are almost impossible to comprehend. The situation in Syria is only the most recent/current of these dilemmas.  If we “connect the dots” of post WWII foreign policy, is there anything we can see as an illuminating pattern?

If pressed about where to look for root problems with our view of the world and their influence on foreign policy decisions, I would offer two seemingly unrelated observations:

• We can be a wonderfully, maddeningly optimistic people;

• We have, over our time as a nation, fetishized freedom.

Clearly these take some explaining.  First things first.

Even people who roundly dislike the United States tend to be amazed , even awed by our general optimism that every problem can be solved and the energy that radiates from such a world-view.  If they are not awed, they are certainly impressed (either positively or negatively, but they are impressed nonetheless). It’s one of the fundamental keys to our greatness as a nation. 

So what’s the problem with optimism?  Optimism becomes a problem when the critical mass of citizens (and subsequently their elected leaders) become convinced that there must be a solution for every social, political, or military ill in the world and, hence, if we are to be a great nation (or if a person is to be looked at as a great leader) SOLUTIONS MUST BE FOUND. 
I sympathize with the disgust Mercurious feels when he observes the reprehensible conduct of Assad (who by most accounts is mild and reasonable in comparison with his father, who reigned over Syria for decades.)  He’s a terrible guy; so is the Taliban; so was Gadhafi; and yes, Saddam was an absolute horror; (for that matter “our man” Karzai is no stand-up man in Afghanistan.)   We’re doing not a lot about Assad; we did a little bit in Libya; we expended vast amounts of life and treasure in Iraq; ditto Afghanistan. 

The question to ask is: did our huge interventions result in appropriately greater social, political and personal progress than did our minimal interventions?  It simply doesn’t make sense to invest massive amounts of precious resources for little (or no?) net gain.  Yet we do it.   Time and time again.  We assume that if we invest the kind of resources overseas comparable to what we might invest domestically, that comparable progress will be made. 

 Why?  Because we are optimists.  I share the amazement that we went to Vietnam in the absence of precious natural resources (such as oil.)  Why did we then?  As another commentator observed, the “domino theory” was dubious.  Might many of the “best and brightest” who got us into that mess genuinely have thought that they could make things better?  It would be consistent with our Achilles heal: optimism.

And what was going to make things better in Vietnam?  Among other things, we were going to save them from their “oppressor”, Ho Chi Minh (who was a natural hero to many).  Why oppressive? He was a communist.  Why is communism so oppressive? It takes away freedom.

This takes us to our second point: if you look at both our domestic and our foreign policy, the abstract idea of “freedom” can be heard loudly and seen clearly.  It lies underneath our inability to understand how Vladimir Putin has been able to consolidate power. How can this happen, we ask?  He has taken away so much freedom from his citizens.  The answer—seen without looking through the strangely colored glasses of the cult of freedom—is obvious: Russians, as a group, value other things—particularly stability—more than freedom. 

The “Arab Spring” obtained such a lofty name because we assumed that the arrival of freedom for these previously dominated populations would bring a flowering of civic engagement, cooperative decision-making, and social well being.  We assumed that freedom would be the solution; we were optimistic.  We were wrong.  It appears that many in Egypt question whether the freedom implicit in democratic elections is worth the cost of theocratic oppression.  The army taking power does not confer freedom; it can confer stability and many, if not most, Egyptians seem to value stability.  We don’t seem to understand this, though.

There is good reason for the prominence of freedom in our national psyche: it is woven through so many of our foundational national myths that by now it is impossible for us not to consider it among the things that make us a great, distinctive nation.  But just as a person has to guard against the assumption that others are going to view the world the way we do, nations must guard against the assumption that others are going to value what we value with the same intensity. 

But we can and do fall prey to this way of thinking.  A small, subtle example of this can be seem with the issue of security cameras in a city I dearly love: London.  Many of us as freedom-loving Americans react with shock and disgust when presented with the statistics outlining just how many security cameras are at work in London.  “What about your freedom?” we ask Brits incredulously.  Amazing as it sounds, Londoners seem to prefer personal safety to our somewhat abstract notion of “freedom.”  How can you enjoy freedom if you are in fear of your life? 

Good question, unfortunately the fetish of freedom in America doesn’t seem to be hindered by such practical considerations. We’re more interested in the freedom as an abstraction.

The ultimate absurd devotion to the fetish of freedom in the abstract is seen in America’s devotion to what is normally called “second amendment rights.”  Sandy Hook with its bloody devastation made barely a dent in our national conversation regarding gun violence; the Maryland mall shooting over the weekend will be yesterday’s news by the end of the 48-hour news cycle.  We won’t be hearing about how gun violence infringes on our practical freedom to be safe for very long;  what we will be hearing is more and more of a seemingly endless flow of verbiage starting with the word “freedom” and ending with the words “second amendment.” 

There is large sub-component of our society that is seemingly more invested in an abstract notion of “freedom” (and unrestricted access to guns, which apparently serves as a symbol for this abstract freedom) than they are in the practical and real freedom of being safe from gun violence.  This abstract notion of “freedom” seems to be getting in the way of more rational approaches to a significant social and political problem.

So what is the bottom line? I’d love to see a political culture in which a bit of world-weary wisdom is viewed as a good quality for leadership—wisdom that regrettably accepts that, sometimes, there is just probably no good answer. And lacking good answers,  maybe we can put our can-do optimism on hold for a while and just wait.  I’d love to see an America that sees freedom as our incredible, distinctive luxury and legacy, but doesn’t offer it or force it on others as some social cure-all. 

This fetish for freedom may great for us, but we’re a very privileged nation.  We were founded by people who viewed religious liberty as something worth fighting (or at least travelling long distances) for.  For us it is quite prominent on our hierarchy of needs; but for others, economic opportunity, social stability or personal safety might be placed higher. When someone starts thinking so much about something that it consistently gets in the way of clear thinking and healthy decision- making, it can be regarded as a fetish (potentially, anyway).

Mercurious has made a fetish of Scarlett Johansson; America has made a fetish of freedom.   Freedom is great, but it won’t solve all problems—especially those problems for which there is no solution.