Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Friday, November 30, 2012

Sometimes Today is Better than Yesteryear

For my kids, a Geezer is defined as a grumpy old codger who complains about almost every modern trend and preference, a fellow who always believes that the past was somehow more noble, more honest, more creative….just plain better than today.

This is not true, kids. I, as well as virtually all Geezers, can find something about modern life that is better than it was in the distant past. (The Professor, I’d argue, in his steadfast defense of antiquated mores, is the exception that proves the rule— that Geezers are reasonable souls).

True, it’s an undisputed fact that movies, politics, books, music, parenting practices, philosophy, education, men’s magazines, college athletics, business practices, Wall Street, space exploration, quantum physics, Broadway theater, stand-up comedy, fine cuisine, and hamburgers are all much worse today than they were 30 years ago.

But as evidence that I’m a reasonable, modern, “hip” Geezer, I offer that the following modern innovations truly ARE better today than “in the day.”

• Frozen Pizza
• Automobiles
• Consumer Electronics
• Luggage
• Drugs
• Clothing fabrics
• The Internet
• International travel
• Burritos
• Locally brewed beer

Let’s take them one by one:

Frozen Pizza.  Everyone acknowledges that a fresh pizzeria pizza, or a home-prepared pizza is by far the better choice, but almost everyone acknowledges that as a quick snack while watching a ballgame, we’ve been known to throw a frozen pizza into the oven.

When frozen pizzas appeared in the 1960’s and 1970s, they were essentially quasi-edible cardboard disks covered with a sprinkling of cheese and 5 or 7 pepperonis or clumps of sausage. “Deluxe” pizza had both the bargain-basement pepperonis AND the faux sausage.

It’s now quite possible to buy edible, even good frozen pizza, including variations with rising bread crusts, whole-wheat crusts; variations that offer good reproduction of Chicago style, California-style pizzas.

Today’s frozen pizza is just flat-out better.

Automobiles.  I have some Geezer friends who lament the fact that they no longer have to tinker with their cars.  They are bat-shit crazy. Cars are meant to give you dependable transportation, and by this standard today’s cars are light-years better. My first car required new spark plugs every 20,000 miles or so; the last two cars I’ve owned were handed off with 120,000 miles or more and never did require new plugs.  New cars now routinely achieve 38 or 40 miles per gallon, and generate significantly more horsepower that before,  with a mere 2.0 or 2.5 liters of displacement.

Not a lot of argument here. A 2012 automobile isn’t in the same class with a 1990 car.

Consumer electronics.  Yes, we’re too connected to the world these days. Yes, there is an information overload.  Yes, people talk and text on cell-phones too much.

But my smart-phone is a thing of wonder. When you evaluate the individual features, you find individual devices that do the job better—dedicated digital cameras, laptop computers, e-book readers, personal gaming consoles. But to pack passable versions of all these devices into one little product the size of a cigarette pack, and sell it for $200….well, that’s just frickin’ amazing. And my Macbook air is a thing of wonder—a wafer thin computer packed with all the power an editor could need.

Remember when a great piece of personal electronics was a cassette-playing boom box the size of a small suitcase?  Now tell me that today’s electronics aren’t far superior.

Once upon a time, a really good TV weighed about 400 lbs. and cost about $1000 (which, in today’s dollars, would be about $5000.  Today, you can have a high definition flat screen television that does a fabulous job with sports or movies for $500 or so. And do we really want to compare a blue-ray player with a VHS video tape player?

I recently read an article that said the typical smart phone of today has more computing power than the combined power of all the computers scientists used in the 1960's to get us to the moon. Now, that says a lot about the ingenuity we had back then, but it also speaks volumes of what our technology has done for consumers

Sorry. No Geezer, no matter how grumpy, can really dispute this. We have better gadgets today. 

Luggage.  In my youth and even early adult-hood, a piece of luggage for routine travel was a sturdy case with a tote handle that you lugged in defiance of gravity.  Then somebody got the brilliant idea to join this with one of man’s earliest inventions—the wheel—to finally make traveling somewhat easier.  The fact that it took the human race 3,000 years to put these two things together says that homo sapiens is not quite the innovative species we’d like to believe.

Don’t we all feel sheepish about this one?

Drugs. As a society, do we over-medicate?  Of course.  Do we wreak havoc by using antibiotics capriciously, thereby breeding super germs. You bet.  Do we often reach for a pill, when the ailment would be better addressed by changes in personal philosophy or behavior? No question about it.  Is our health care system a shambles?  Undoubtedly.

But beyond all that, there are lots of truly awful diseases that can now be addressed by narrow-spectrum drugs that reduce these from life-threatening ailments to chronic, easily managed conditions, Remember when tens of thousands of people were blinded by glaucoma?  Probably not, if you’re under 40 years of age. In my younger years, having type 1 diabetes meant you had a very good chance of going blind or having an extremity amputated at some point in life.  Today, it can be largely managed.

In 1990, a young boy named Ryan White died of the aids virus after contracting it from a blood transfusion and living for some years with ostracism and harassment at the hands of schoolmates and their parents. Today, Magic Johnson is a celebrity for living successfully with the HIV virus as a chronic condition. In my youth, epilepsy could only be treated with barbiturates that made people feel like they were swimming in molasses; today’s narrow-spectrum drugs have almost no side effects while controlling the condition far better.

You’d have to be a truly grumpy Geezer to want to go back to 1950 when it comes to therapeutic drugs.

(Note:  I make no comments on the nature of modern recreational drugs vs. the old stuff. I’m no longer in a position to speak with any authority on that subject.)

Clothing fabrics.  When I was growing up, you had cotton, you had wool, and blends of the two. All of it incredibly natural, and also incredibly difficult to care for. Remember the days when everything had to be ironed by hand? In those days, we all laughed at “plastic” fabrics like nylon and rayon and polyester, but today we’d be lost without them.  It’s been years since I’ve had to iron a shirt or pair of trousers, and all my clothes last far longer than they ever did.  Sure, I kind of like to have my clothes to be blends that include some cotton or wool, but the synthetics are here to stay, thanks be.

And I don’t know what they are made of, but the compression undershirts I’ve started wearing are both warm and incredibly comfortable.  I never had that feeling about cotton undershirts.

As regards fabrics, chalk another one up to 2013.

The internet.  This is cheating a little, because the web really didn’t exist in any appreciable way until 1990 or so (it was just a tool among academics in universities in the early days) but holy cow, has anything been more revolutionary in changing how we access information?

I find it truly magical that when I try to search for a file within my company database using a string of text, it can take 15 or 20 minutes to do so (if it’s possible at all); but type in a term like “photo of Susan Sarandon wearing garters”, and I get 395,000 results in less than one second, drawn from individual computers and file servers from all over the globe.

Yes, there’s a lot of garbage and misinformation on the Internet. But you can find a great volume of the world’s classic wisdom, too.  I have access to books that once would have been almost impossible to find, thanks to the web. And the Internet has given us email, too, the boons of which, I’d argue, outweigh the banes.
International travel.  There are people who argue that travel has lost its romance, but having traveled internationally 30 years ago as well as today, I very much appreciate the fact that international travel has become almost as routine as domestic travel. A recent trip to China saw almost no delays getting through customs, and traveling to Europe is now utterly easy, as routine as going to New York City. There are wonderful sights to see around the world, and I, for one, am thrilled that it is now so easy, and relatively affordable, to wander the globe.

Burritos.  This makes my list for the pure and simple reason that Chipotle is my favorite fast food on the planet. If I was stuck on a desert island and could have one fast food only, this is my pick. Both tasty and healthy enough that you probably wouldn’t come down with scurvy or rickets from eating it for a year or two.

A totally random selection, but burritos in my youth didn’t hold a candle to these.

Locally brewed beer.  I’m not going to shamelessly tout any modern brand of Midwestern microbrews. Local beers—many dozens of them— have always been a part of Midwestern life in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but in the 1970s the options were truly evil concoctions with names like Ham’s, Schmidt’s and the worst of all, a foul swill named Fox Deluxe, which was guaranteed to send you to the bathroom with liquefied bowels within 30 minutes of imbibing.

Today’s local brews are truly great beers. No nostalgia for the malts of the past for this Geezer.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Movies by Mercurious, Week of November 25, 2012

I unfortunately do not have time for a full blown movie review this week, but can make a recommendation for those who are looking for  fresh movie and have already seen "Skyfall" and "Lincoln."

"Silver Linings Playbook" is well worth your time.

I am really not a Bradley Cooper fan. I generally find him to be smarmy and self-indulgent. But this movie is well worth seeing just for the performance of Jennifer Lawrence—a swell talent who I have yet to see in a bad performance. She is simply wonderful young actress who practices her craft successfully without going down the painfully anorexic body-image path of actresses like Keira Knightly. The supporting roles in this film, acted by Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver, are also very fine.

And if you didn't catch it the first time out, do also see Jennifer Lawrence in a very, very good independent film from a couple of years ago, "Winter's Bone" (trailer below). The film is widely available on various on-line streaming options.

Silver Linings Playbook Geezer Quotient:  80/100

Winter's Bone Geezer Quotient: 95/100

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Mercurious Once Again Reigns Supreme!

 In the latest battle of the Geezers Emeritus in on-line Risk competition...

Reverting to form, Mercurious trounced Dr. Golf in the latter stages of a thrilling mano y mano. Earlier, the Mathematician morphed effortlessly into his comfort zone as the wearer of urine-yellow uniforms for the upcoming game (he surrendered first, in other words; yellow is a signal of disgrace in our world) and the Professor disproved Thomas Wolfe, wasting no time in going home again to Loserville.  

Dr. Golf shocked those in attendance by his careless and sloppy play, allowing the deserving but less talented Mercurious to snag yet another victory.  Mercurious, well known for his lack of self esteem in this world of gladiators, has been documented on numerous occasions sneaking out the back door in the dead of night to engage mere mortals in combat—thereby inflating his scoring and his ranking. This behavior has led the Hall of Fame committee to reconsider his nomination.

In the final measure, Mercurious owes his victory not to talent but to the fact that he received undeserved reinforcement as a result of Dr. Golf’s dereliction of due care in his play.

Not to worry, as Dr. Golf has promised to come back rested and poised for victory and celebration in the upcoming match.  For Risk fans, nothing could provide them with greater comfort and anticipation.  All they can do now is wait.    

Monday, November 26, 2012

On-line Risk Results for Thanksgiving, 2012

—this sports update contributed by Dr. Golf—

As if in a salute to an bygone era, the gods of the on-line Risk gaming world have finally smiled upon the downtrodden, yet victorious Professor. With his trademark substance-over-form approach, our hero turned back the unleashed hounds of the cunning Mathematician.  In a man-on-man faceoff, the bullying tactics of the the Mathematician left the Professor unfazed and steadfast in his refusal to "carry the water."  

Played to completion in a virtual fog to those on-hand, the analog Professor emerged the victor.  The final stage of this game was remarkable for the lack of two of its finest champions, a fact hopefully not lost on Mercurious, whose uninspired play and wishy-washy approach to this game left Dr. Golf, perhaps the game's finest player, exposed to the brutish Mathematician.  One can only hope that Mercurious, once considered the conscience of the game and a steward and connoisseur of fine play and technique, will return to form and play like the man his fellow competitors once admired.  

This week's winner, the Professor;  and the runner-up, the 
In an ironic twist, the Professor was not present at the award ceremonies.  As rumor had it, the good fellow was reportedly spotted Christmas shopping along the streets of Norwich during the week leading up to Thanksgiving, all the while spouting profanity at the shopkeepers for their heathen disregard for all things decent and for selling Christmas merchandise to the lowly, laggardly likes of himself.  It's a hell of a holiday note for us all.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

"What Do You Think You Are?"

—this article contributed by the Professor—

I think we all  remember certain things from our childhood with particular vividness.  Perhaps predictably because I’m a person who loves language, certain phrases have a special place in my memory.  A half-baked idea recounted to the assembled “wise men” of our town would often be greeted with : “so how’s that working out, then?”  A confidently expressed sentiment might be greeted with: “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” 

But the most memorable of lines was that employed by both my grandmother and mother (who, of course, were not the only ones to use it, as it was a very common phrase,)  At those moments where we had asked for an exception to be made, or provided an excuse why we shouldn’t have to do some task, or even when we just got a little bit too full of ourselves, my grandmother or mother would turn to us/me with a mix of amusement and loving dismissiveness and ask rhetorically: “What do you think you are…special?” 

This was it in a nutshell: there was never any doubt (had we ever thought about such things in the pre self-obsessed age in which we grew up) that we were loved; and we were certainly valued.  But one thing was made concisely and repeatedly clear to us:  we were no better and no worse than anyone else.
Or perhaps that is a bit of an oversimplification.  Most of us knew that there were areas in which we simply excelled more than others: some us of clearly ran faster, some scored better on spelling bees, some were able to afford the latest fashionable clothing.  But what was conveyed in no uncertain terms was that—regardless of the extent to which we succeeded—this success was not something to be drawn attention to and it certainly wasn’t an excuse to seek advantage or preferential treatment.  Another occasional variant of the phrase (“What makes you think you’re so special?)  made the situation very clear: daydreams of grandeur, exceptionalism or even modest success were not something we should be waiting upon or expecting.

Clearly we were not raised with what later generations would be drenched in: “self-esteem.”

As a teacher, I observe young people on a daily basis—all cheerful and quite lovely people—who have been told from a very early age that they “could do anything.” (I have surveyed classes many times and it is a rare occurrence for even one student not to recognize that phrase.)  They have been rewarded in extravagant ways for—in many cases—modest accomplishments.  In a nutshell, they have been encouraged to think that they are exceptional and that great things are waiting for them if only they show up, follow the rules and “be themselves.”  They were baptized (and later, confirmed) in the cult religion of self-esteem.

Astute readers will now, of course, observe “here’s another bitter geezer complaining about too many trophies.”  This is a common complaint of geezer parents (and grandparents.) For the younger reader for whom the cult is the norm,  the easy conclusion is that we geezers are resentful because we never got trophies (in our time, there was usually be one trophy, given to the one team that--dare I say it--WON the competition) and, for that matter, never got the kind of warm and fuzzy ego strokes that these subsequent generations have assumed as their birthright. 

But such kneejerk analysis seriously misses the mentality of the geezer when complaining about such things.  The complaint about excess rewards for children springs from a genuine pity of, and concern for, these generations of “esteemed” progeny. 

If one has been told how good you are from an early age, there is only really one general attitude with which to approach the wider world: “I am exceptional, I can do anything, and I will succeed.”  All of which is (with the exception of truly extraordinary and statistically miniscule numbers of individuals) complete bosh. 

Many will succeed—in some things, at some times.  But the unconscious expectation that one is bound for greatness (which is what “self-esteem” is often confused with,)  leads inevitably to feelings of dismay, disappointment and deflation when such inflated expectations come up against the hard reality that us upper midwest geezers learned a long time ago: most of us just aren’t that special. 
The lack of resilience that characterizes many of the young people I teach is something pitiable and understandable: if you fail at something after being told you will (should) succeed, it makes sense to believe you  did something wrong; it makes sense to give up and not try again, and it makes sense to think that those who failed to reward you “don’t like” you. 

If, on the other hand, you have been lucky enough to have been raised a geezer in Minnesota, you approach the world with the attitude: “well, how do you suppose this thing will work out, then?”  If it works out “not so good” the sensible reaction is:  “well, what did you expect?”  If something happens to go well, and success is somehow achieved, the sensible reaction is: “How about that, then…isn’t that something?” 

I’m not an expert on “self-esteem,” but my thinking is that true self esteem shouldn’t result in a brittle, self-absorbed expectation that great things await.  Rather, if you have been raised to know that you have true value as a person (but not any more than anyone else), you approach the world saying: “well I suppose this is going to be a mess—smarter people than myself have goofed up haven’t they?—but I should give it a try because I’m here and who knows….?”) 

The ultimate fallout from miscarried self-esteem parenting is that it seriously hinders personal resiliency and almost annihilates thankfulness: how can one be thankful for one’s success if you expect it and think you deserve it?

Lord knows, a Minnesota upbringing brings with it a lot of baggage, (most of it cold, a lot of it heavy, and some of it smelling suspiciously like fish soaking in lye.)  But if there is one thing I will always be thankful for, it’s the fact that everyone loved me enough to make it clear to me that I wasn’t special.

The Art is....Trash

Most thoughtful Geezers have come to some conclusions about what separates art from the posturing silliness that sometimes tries to go by that name.

Recently, Mrs. Mercurious and I attended a dance performance sponsored through the local university dance subscription program. This is a world class performance series that in most years can be depended upon to bring in names like Joffrey, Bolshoi, the New York City Ballet, the Houston Ballet, as well as a number of top-notch modern troupes, such as Bill T. Jones, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Pilobolus, etc. Every season has a fair number of performances that hit the mark well for my esoteric tastes. 

The series also misses sometimes by featuring productions that aren’t very good, and occasionally flat out bad. But that’s to be expected. We’ve been season ticket holders for 25 years, and we have no problem with seeing some fairly experimental performances. The nature of art, like genetics, is to constantly experiment to see if something new will work.

But I’m still muttering over a recent awful evening spent watching something called “Poliical Mother” from Hofesh Schechter, an Israeli born choreographer and musician, who has gained something of an international reputation for the avant gard.

The performance we saw made me think upon the difference between art and organic fertilizer.

(Now, it’s been pointed out to me that I’ve been known to exaggerate. This is perfectly true. I do this for on some occasions for dramatic effect. But I pledge to you all, Geezer and readers alike, that the following account is absolutely true).

Entering the Orpheum theater in downtown Minneapolis, we found the hall filled with a hazy, unpleasant fog/smoke. The usher assured us this was intentional, not the start of a fire, and then sternly told us that for the next 70 minutes, no one would be allowed to leave the theater. If some emergency required it, no re-entry would be allowed. This was part of the artist’s vision, she said.

The choreographer’s notes in the program were borderline gibberish, offering no coherent story of what he was really trying to accomplish. We learned from the program notes that, during the musical composition, he had been mightily pleased when he realized he had achieved a sound that was “like trash you would pick up off the street.”  In the early days of rehearsal, he said the dancers had been forced to listen to pounding non-stop, non-rhythmic drum track for 5 hours a day until all their training was in shambles and the dancers themselves were nervous wrecks.

Most ominously, the program had stapled to it a small plastic packet with two foam earplugs in it.

The earplugs were entirely necessary, as it turned out, but were also entirely insufficient. As the performance unfolded, most in the audience also muffled their heads with their hands. My wife actually put on winter earmuffs to deaden the sound even further.

Our friend who was with us (he sometimes is known as The Maestro, as he is a gifted musician) left after 10 minutes; I made it to 40 minutes, then watched the rest from the lobby on the close-circuit monitor, where roughly 50 escapees from the concert hall  snorted and chortled at each preposterous new abomination we saw. 

It’s really not worth explaining this dance. You could look it up for yourself here, in this link.The simple summary is to say that it was attempting to comment on how people are manipulated and controlled by both political and artistic tyrants. The irony was that no fascist dictator could more tyrannical then the bully who concocted this performance.

Thinking about this in the days afterwards, I recognized that this particular endeavor failed to qualify as art for me, for the following reasons.

• There was no respect for, or partnership with, the audience.
• There was no respect for the performers.
• There was attempt to suggest a vision of life.

Now, modern, avant garde art has always existed. I’m not such a stodgy old geezer that I don’t appreciate that art can and must sometimes tear down the status quo as part of the effort to suggest new realities. This is one of the key roles of art, and I applaud when it’s done successfully.

And I by no means am saying that all today’s art is bad art. I’m quite sure that the same Greek amphitheaters that were debuting Antigone were also showing some absolute crap in the matinees the following afternoon. The absurdist Dada movement that was the rage shortly after the 20th century opened had some truly amazing artists, but it also had trash. Decades later, some of the dramatic absurdists penned some very interesting work, but Edward Albee, among others, also did some really silly nonsense, too.

So this isn’t just an old bastard grousing about modern performance. Not at all. But I am now old enough and seasoned enough that I don’t have to appreciate an “artist” who clearly disdains his audience, and who is purely nihilist with no interest in vision. 

My sorrowful night night at the theatre might be regarded as an artistic failure using other definitions, too. My favorite teacher ever, a literature teacher I studied with at the University of Minnesota, showed me how virtually all art could be understood through the cycle of the Divine Tragedy and Divine Comedy. The cycle of existence, and hence all art, is about the cycle between destruction and new creation. Tragedy is act 1—the sorrowful collapse of the old order; comedy is act two—the ensuing chaos and bedlam that ensues as a new order struggles to arise from the ashes. Even a painting, or musical composition, will have those themes if it aspires to art.

To be considered art, a work must contain at least traces of both elements, though it will predominate in one direction or the other.  Art will always have identifiable tragicomic themes in it.  Nihilistic chaos can't be called tragedy, and unintentional farce  that isn't anchored by real human frailty and vulnerability will also miss the mark.  Strike one, strike two, strike three for Political Mother. 

I initially thought that I would categorize this particular performance as a  "catastrophe."  At the suggestion of another Geezer, though, I looked up the etymological roots of the word, and found that it has a time-honored connotation in its meaning as  the final act of tragic drama.  To call this dance performance a catastrophe, then, would be to malign the term. 

"Debacle" seems quite safe, however.  "A total, often ludicrous, failure."

* Yes, in the photo of the performance shown above, that’s one of the dancers wearing a gorilla mask. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Movies by Mercurious: Week of November 18, 2012

One thing that happens as you pass the 55-year mark is that time passage takes on  a different perspective. When I was a little fellow around five years of age, I remember my parents and grandparents talking about WWII, and it seemed like medieval history to me. Actually though, at the time that epic war was only 15 years in the past. As I write now, the war of my own youth, Vietnam, is approaching 50 years in distance from today.

Similarly, the American Civil War can seem like ancient history as it now approaches the 150 year anniversary. But with Vietnam seeming like yesterday, you recognize that in the greater scheme of things, the Civil War is relatively fresh cultural history. In fact, I remember a human interest story when I was a boy about the last living Civil War widow dying. She had been a very young bride who had married a rather old veteran well after the war, but still the point is valid. On the old "I've got a Secret" television program in the early 50s, I saw a very old gentlemen speak of seeing Lincoln's assassination when he was a wee boy.

America is a very young country by world standards, and this signature event is still being digested in our cultural conscience. To have gone from the end of slavery to an African American as president in a mere 150 years is a profound statement on the wonder of democratic government.

We’ve all been raised to believe that Abraham Lincoln is our greatest president, but when a figure reaches that kind of heroic status, it becomes hard to separate the truth from the mythological archetype.

Steven Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln, humanizes this American legend in a remarkable way. It is almost certainly headed for nomination as best picture of the year, and it’s likely that Daniel-Day Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones will receive accolades for best actor and supporting actor; Sally Fields as Mary Lincoln stands a good chance as well.

Focusing on the relatively brief stretch of Lincoln’s presidency near the end of the civil war as he tried to get the 13th Amendment passed, this film is a sublime dramatization of arduous politics of getting slavery banished once and for all. School kids are raised to believe this was accomplished by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but that act was actually child’s play compared to effort require to pass the amendment that put this policy into the constitution itself.

I’ve not been all that huge a fan of Steven Spielberg’s of late. His films are always well crafted and epic in nature, but War Horse was only that, not a artistic film, really. Even the Color Purple, widely acclaimed by most, seemed a little manipulative to me. The only truly great Spielberg film for me was Schindler’s List, in which we saw evidence that Spielberg could be truly masterful. But I had come to see it as the exception proving the rule that Spielberg was an artist for the masses, not necessarily a genius.

Lincoln is not Schindler’s List, but it comes very, very close. Daniel-Day Lewis’ performance as Lincoln is a thing to behold, and I’ll be seeing this film several times just to enjoy him, and the performance of Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania— a crucial figure in the passing of the amendment.

It will take a pretty darned fine movie in the closing month of the 2012 season to upset this for best picture of the year.