Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Virtue of Emptiness

On a particularly grumpy Monday, this grumpy Geezer observes the following: 

A Geezer nightmare 
• On a typical business trip, a professional now has access to Wi-Fi service on the plane, in restaurants, and at hotels, keeping him connected at all times. He almost certainly has a smart phone on which to check his stock prices and emails. He may well carry two phones, in fact—one for personal use and the other for business. They are never shut off, and it is entirely normal for this fellow to check that device every few minutes, all week long, all day long, morning and night. He also is almost certainly is carrying a laptop computer, and maybe an I-pad or some other tablet device, too. This poor bastard may also have a blue-tooth device that allows him to take phone calls while simultaneously typing emails (which will draw glares from the publisher sitting near him in the airport waiting lounge).

• On the home front, the situation isn’t much different. For the typical working parent with kids, it’s now almost unheard of to have an entire night off because of commitments to junior’s various school conferences, sporting events, musical performances, tutoring or sport coaching sessions, and a variety of other shuttling. When a family has two children in school, the two parents will rarely be able to dine together, they’re so damned busy serving their kids.

• If our modern hero has a little bit of time for mindless relaxation, he might turn on the television and find that the broadcast screen includes five or six “violators” that vie to divert his attention away from the popular drama or sporting event he tuned in to watch: network logos, and news crawls, and radar maps, and time and temperature readings, and promos for upcoming programming.

• For our kids, well, we’re schooling them to follow this path. There is no longer any such thing as a summer vacation, or time to hang out after school or on weekends. Most kids today maintain schedules that would have wearied the top executives of TWA back in the day.  Little Susie’s days are filled with: afterschool tutoring and coaching seminars; summer school sessions, SAT practice tests; 4-5 hours of daily homework. (This is an actual statistic from the state of Minnesota for kids in college-prep ciriculum.) A kid with even a few minutes of spare time seems to make parents panic. 

(The average five-year-old middle-class suburban kid today has already had more than one year, but not quite two years, of some form of education aimed at building knowledge by the time he arrives at kindergarten. This is such a truism now that a toddler who arrives to school unable to read competently is thought to be “challenged.”)

Now, you and I both know that none of us was raised this way. Back then, when you encountered a family that DID raise kids this way, they were viewed as truly weird—as though you had the Munster family in your neighborhood. 

The Geezers in a simpler time
As kids, we had hours to play, and our summers were delightfully long stretches filled with, well, almost nothing. Kindergarten was a place where little kids learned just to sit still and listen for a few minutes when asked to. And because this was so unusual and tiresome, we were then allowed to nap for a little while  before eating some cookies with milk and going home to play some more.

When I started in the work world, I loved business trips, because the out-of-touch hours spent on a plane, in cabs, in hotel rooms was utterly free time for me to ponder and think and muse, and read a book that I wanted to read rather than review financial reports in anticipation of the next morning’s meeting. Back then, the hardworking professional might put in 50, 55 hours of labor a week; the guy who worked 80 was thought (rightly) to be mentally ill.

The last 15 or 20 years, though, has seen a quantum shift in what it means to be a modern American.

As you can tell, I’m highly critical of these trends, and I sometimes wonder if I’m just being a crabby old geezer about it. Maybe the evolution of the species will someday bring about an ability to easily multitask in a way that seems bewildering to my geezer eyes of today. What seems like attention deficit disorder may just be natural evolution. It is important for old geezers to put their grumpy outlook into perspective.

But I just don’t think I’m misjudging this.  We’ve lost touch with the fact that true creativity hinges on some plain old fashion empty mental space in which to play with perceptions and memories and ideas, and rearrange them in interesting and useful ways. Nothing much comes out of a huge, dense mass of solid rock, while the same volume of stone blended with space into a few million cornices and cobblestones and building blocks can allow you to create a fine city with museums and parks and concert halls and art galleries. 

I would argue that for modern man, the inner mental world has become that block of solid rock, so packed with sensory input and informational bits that creativity is a virtual impossibility. We have no sense of play whatsoever anymore, and play is the essence of creativity—it’s what breaks up that block into materials with which to create.

Feeling morose about this fact, I posed the problem with some Geezer friends, and one suggested that I cheer myself by thinking about the metaphorical chisels and stone saws that can be used to carve up that unpleasant block of solid metaphorical granite, creating the space that is now so lacking in modern life. He suggested that for him, a dog was one such tool. Walk an energetic and loving family dog in the evening, and it’s virtually impossible to multi-task on an IPhone. Family dog = creative space. 

All right then. Much cheered, I’ll share some of my own tools for finding that creative emptiness:

Garden. Having your fingers in the dirt once a day drains all static energy from your bones and sinews and synapses. 

Do things yourself rather than hiring others. A lot of people find going to a spa or having a massage to be freeing for the mind. For me, mind space is encouraged by simple but productive labor. Make sure you break a light sweat; that’s when you know it’s real. There's no harm in doing things badly rather than hiring expertise; doing anything, even badly, is good for the soul.

Find a sharp little knife and whittle a twig.  Enough said. Whistling while you do it is a nice touch. (I remember a time when we all had jackknives in our pocket, and played games in the school yard at lunch. And none of us ever got expelled.) 

Throw or give away 27 things. In feng shui practice, it’s believed that rearranging exactly 27 items has spiritual and energetic significance. In my version, it is jettisoning 27 things. I don’t know why, but 27 items is enough to feel significant but not so much that it makes you feel obsessive.

Meditate. Nothing profoundly mystical necessary. Just sit for 30 minutes and let your mind do whatever it wants to do, without guidance or coercion.  

• Go to a good animated movie. Turn off your critical faculties and just enter the fantasy of it.  Note: it helps if you attend the matinee with Mrs. Geezer. A middle age men in a theater full of kids may draw some odd looks, and maybe a cop.

Experience the full hour just before and after dawn with a cup of coffee. The 30 minutes right around dawn is where everything in the world falls silent. The transition into and out of that silence is one of life’s wonders. 

Doodle. Fill the margins of the business report you are reading during the next corporate meeting with the most absurd, goofy scribbles you can create. For geezers, it’s allowable to sketch boobies.

Don’t answer all your emails. Don’t even read ‘em all. By this point, you know who has something to say and who is full of air. On at least one day a month, delete all your emails without even opening them. The world won’t end. If anybody gets testy, blame it on the IT guys, or on Google. They’ll be guilty of something, if not this. 

 Walk to work occasionally. If you argue that your commute is too far, don’t be too sure. Try it and find out. I’ve known people who walk 10 or 12 miles occasionally, and find it to be a fine thing.

• Get seriously drunk every so often. It blows the pipes clear and frees the sticky valves. A serious hangover can be a cleansing, space-creating, soul-searching experience.

Get together with your Geezer pals on a regular basis. Trust  me, this is truly mindless fun. Note: this is virtually always practiced in conjunction with the previous point. 


  1. What Mercurious conveniently fails to mention is that when he "does it himself" yes, doing it badly might be good for his soul. Not so much for his poor family that went 2 years with a gutted bathroom :)

    Love you dad!

  2. Trying the test guy...Mercurious, you're a genius