Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

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.