Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Observations from a Geezer in Management

Over the last few years, International business travel has become less fun, and in my opinion the parties responsible for this are Microsoft, Apple, and the other leading edge technology companies.

Time was when travel was an opportunity for business people to go incognito for a short while, at least while in transit to and from the destination meetings. For myself, anyway (since I have a strong contemplative nature that borders on the ani-social) a business trip offered a refreshing opportunity to go off the grid for a little while and temporarily drop the responsibility of bossing people around. There used to be a nice element of anonymity to business travel that made it a freeing experience for me, and undoubtedly for the people who have to work with me daily.

But these days there is really no such thing as being off-the-grid for most business travelers, and connectedness in the blu-tooth era is now so ingrained that there is virtually no difference between sitting in your own office with underlings 20 feet away and managing them from the back row of a sales conference 4,000 miles away in London.  We have already had two live-meeting video  teleconferences with the home office that are virtually indistinguishable from meetings held in person. Except for the time difference, there’s now not much difference between meetings where everybody sits in the room at the same time, and those where the attendees are in three separate continents.

More’s the pity. This kind of business culture might be good for business in the immediate sense: don’t all managers reward those people who slavishly  put in more hours than the job requires?  But I don’t think it’s particularly good for people and likely not really good for business in the longer term. My staff could undoubtedly use some relief from my constant participation, just as I could use a break from my own boss’s micromanagement.  Americans work a hell of a lot, and the impact of this obsession is not better results. We’d be better off, I think, if our business leaders used their weekends to get way from work and recharge with the goal of doing better work in fewer hours, and if they encouraged others to do likewise  More hours only rarely lead to more genuine productivity, after all. But like most good modern people in the private business world today,  I answered emails at 10:30 last night, and at 5:00 am  this morning.

For this entire morning I’ve been directing employees from afar via computer, signing contracts and approvals, and otherwise making myself a huge pest to staff members who, I imagine, were looking for a break from my meddling while I was gone. My email browser can tell me, in an instant, which of the employees are using their computers at any given moment. If I was being really diligent, I would be making some notes on which employees seem to be slacking off today.  Alas, in the modern business environment, the cat is never away, and the mice don’t get to play all that much.

I have told people, though, that I will be truly off the grid early next week when I travel north of London to visit another geezer (our esteemed and grumpy Professor) and his lovely wife.  Secretly, I hope the home office has some fun in those days when I’m not in touch, and perhaps take an extended lunch or two and leaves a little early if spring starts early in Minneapolis. I have to pretend to be sternly disapproving of this behavior, but quietly, it makes me smile with subversive approval.  

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Sensual Geezer

I am a notorious cheap-skate. And nowhere more-so than when it comes to hair cuts. No doubt this originates in early family life, an era when my dad gathered my brothers and me out in the yard or basement once each month and went at our skulls with an electric shears that we later learned was borrowed from the local farmer—who at one time used it for shearing the manes and tails of his work horses.

Commercial haircuts in those days were about $4, and the $12 a month it would cost to cut three brats' hair was significant money to a beginning schoolteacher in 1960. So I understand fully why my dad chose this homespun route, and it perhaps explains why even today I'm loath to pay more than $15 or $20 for somebody to simply cut my hair. I actually kind of envy balding men who can save lots of cash by simply shaving their heads.

But this weekend I stumbled on a new hair salon catering to the sports enthusiast crowd. It features a bunch of big-screen TVs playing a variety of sporting events, a decor making use of metal lockers and signed portraits of sports stars, and stylists wearing mock team uniforms. All told, just a fairly routine and slightly comic marketing strategy. But since the basic haircut was a mere $17—well within my geezer cheap-skate budget—what the heck?  I stopped in.

As a new-comer, I learned that I qualified for a free up-grade to something called the "MVP package."  Again, what the heck....it was a free upgrade, after all, so I was perfectly game. The haircut itself was actually quite good as these bargain stylists go. But then we got to the post haircut fun. First, I was led back to darkened room and seated in a comfortable lounging chair that vibrated delightfully according to whatever whim I dialed into the controls. I was then reclined over a sink oozing sensual music from speakers built into the sides of the cabinet. A warm, moist, slightly scented towel was placed over my neck and face, and then the stylist performed an ever-so wonderful shampoo with some kind of tingling solution,  in which the aim was not so much clean hair as a really  diligent full massage of the head and scalp. Her fingers worked my scalp and temples for a full ten minutes or so—although frankly, my out-of-body experience made it hard to judge time.

Then I took my chair back out in the main styling room, where my hair was blow-dried, and then the coup de grace delivered: a final vibrating massage of the shoulders and neck. My, my. And what is the regular cost for this extra package? I asked, dreamily.

The MVP package, it seems, is a mere $5 upgrade to the basic $17 haircut. Good god above: what have I been missing all these years?

Talk about a brilliant marketing ploy. I typically put off haircuts, grumpily, for three or four months at a time. But I can suddenly see myself quite willingly getting haircuts considerably more often.

On the way home, I decided to wash the car clean of the late February slush and grime. This is usually an action where my normal cheapskate instincts requires me to pump quarters into a machines to scrub my car by hand with brushes, but in my newfound hedonism of the moment, I decided on a drive-through version where robotic machines do all the work for you. Scalp tingling delightfully, shoulders and neck fully relaxed, a great haircut reflecting back at me in the rear-view mirror,  I watched the machinery do its thing. At one point, nozzles spray a tri-colored solution of blue, purple and yellow foams all over your car. Senses already aglow, I found the dripping colors mingling on my windows to be both hypnotic and just a little hallucinogenic. It took me back to the day of watching the film Fantastic Planet in college while under the influence of herbs.

I have decided to change my ways and get haircuts more frequently. I am, however, going to limit it to no more than two or three each week.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Tale of Two Professionals

They are adorably cute, the young professionals who clog the skyways of downtown Minneapolis at lunchtime. Between the ages of 25 to 35 or so, these downtown professionals have a distinct "uniform" that they wear—a dress code of acceptable garb that allows for very little variation, even while it tries to distinguish itself from the dress of the traditional geezer professionals.

For the young crowd, only black will do. The men's suits and the women's business dresses are invariably black for this crowd. For the women, there may be a bit of color offered by scoop neck blouses or leotard tops beneath jet black blazers; and the men may offer a very small bit of color in the dress shirts or ties; but even here, black is so much the fashion that you very often see the dress shirts and ties all in matching black.The young men who work for ad agencies may well let their shirt tails hang open under their suit coats, but this, too, is only a small variation on the costume theme.

Isolate the young professionals from downtown in one room,  and you see more black than you would at a state funeral.

The young men of course often sport those spiky haircuts so much the fashion; and rather than real beards they all wear fashionable stubble, even though I'm told that this is now becoming passe in other parts of the country, where the Ben Affleck full beard is coming into vogue. (Thank God; the scruffy stubble face has been an eye-sore for far too long.) The women enjoy a little more freedom in styles. You see long hair and short hair, high-heels and elegant calf-high boots.

The young professionals are always in a terrific hurry, as they are so new to their careers that 1-hour lunch hour is very closely enforced. They will flock to whatever sandwich shop or sushi counter is most trendy at the moment,  never mind that they might wait in line for 30 minute. And who can blame them? They are there, after all, to socialize with pretty members of the opposite sex, so I see why they're willing to stand and laugh and flirt for 30 minutes.

 If they have time after lunch, they will do a little shopping in the high-end department stores in order to prove themselves. In their efforts to grow up, young adults are far more concerned about expensive clothing, I find, than most of the geezer professionals who can actually afford it.

The older professionals who are approaching or are solid members of the geezer years have an entirely different air about them. While I have always been a considerably more disheveled fellow than is the norm, virtually all the older professional workers have adopted a more relaxed attitude in dress and habit. I frequently see a very well-renowned criminal defense lawyer during lunch hours—a guy who gets his choice of whatever high-profile case is underway in the midwest. He's fellow who can quite easily afford $3,000 suits, yet except for the days when he is in court, his lunchtime attire is old comfortable loafers, jeans or khaki slacks, and comfortable baggy sweaters.  Other old guys might be seen in (gasp) corduroy sports coats, cardigan sweaters, or suits that are brown or blue rather than the requisite black that seems inviolable to the youngsters. And they really don't care what anybody else thinks. Eventually you get to a point where comfort is more important than style.

The geezers are generally less frantic and rushed in their lunchtime behavior. They might go to lunch late and dawdle over the New York Times for an extra half hour. They seem far less concerned about the social aspects of lunch. Unlike the kids who huddle and chatter like flocks of sparrows around the sandwich shops, geezer professionals seem to be more comfortable in solitude, or lunching with a single companion at a sidewalk cafe.

They are adorably cute, these young urban professionals. But I'm glad I'm not one of them anymore.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Apropos of Nothing in Particular....

About 12 years ago, a massive 90-ft. tall sugar maple tree in my back yard, already at least a century old, began to shed huge limbs. After it destroyed my deck as well as the fences of neighbors on both sides, we decided to have the tree removed. Wasn't an easy decision, since I'm more fond of a nice tree than I am of many people.

On removal day, though, I had the removal crew leave a massive stump, some 10 feet tall and five feet in diameter, standing in the yard. I was vaguely planning to have some sort of outrageous sculpture carved from the stump, since it was still pretty good hardwood.

In practice, though, the stump became a self-drying source of firewood. For the next decade, whenever I wanted to build a fire—or when I simply wanted to burn off some frustration—I'd grab the ax and hack off a few more pounds of good, dry maple for the fireplace.

In the last year, or two, though, most of the firewood has been exhausted, and what remained was a gradually softening lump of decaying wood, now approaching ground level. This has been interesting in and of itself, for watching the spectacle of decay and the life that grows up in its midst, is a pretty fascinating study. All manner of interesting bugs and fungi have taken up home in this old stump over the years, and many birds and chipmunks have used it for food and shelter.

This weekend, though, I realized that it was time to take the stump off to ground level, and so several hours were spent hacking out its remaining bones.

Near the geographic center of the stump, within three or four inches of was the original center of tree judging from it's annual growth rings, I came upon the remains of a strand of ordinary farmer's barbed wire. It was an older style of barbed wire, and given its location, I realized that this must be an artifact of a time when our portion of urban Minneapolis was a farmstead. We are part of what is known as the Lyndale farmstead addition to the city. It's an area just south of the big city lakes, which themselves were country "getaway" resorts for the very wealthy families of old Minneapolis, with names such as Pillsbury. A hundred years ago or so, the land our house sits on was rural pastureland found well south of even the weekend resort locations. In those days, this was deep, deep countryside.

Our home was built in 1924, so it's pretty clear that this little piece of barbed wire and the tree it was nailed to is older than our home by a fair measure. Over the years, the maple healed itself of the indignity of being used as a fence post, covering over the wire with living wood, as it watched its home go from prairie wetlands to pasture to country home, then pre-war suburban development, than modern urban neighborhood with internet wires threading through its branches.

A couple of things come to mind as I look at this little artifact. One is the resilience of the natural healing process. In its maturity, there was nothing about this stately tree that indicated its lowly beginnning as a mere fence post, and it very successfully covered over its wound so that virtually no sign was evident. The piece of wire you see here was fully two feet from the visible world for many decades, buried inside wood tissue until two days ago.

But the second observation is that the tree was always a product of its wound, and the barbed wire nailed to it in the days of steam engines became an integral part of its nature, right up to the moment the last decaying wood was reabsorbed by the earth. I now remember that one side of the tree had a magnificent burl knot, with intricate wood rings that caused a friend of mine to request it for woodworking. It's entirely possible that the outer manifestation of this burl was in fact the tree's scar tissue built up over the barbed wire irritation within it. My maple tree was karma manifested, for everything that happened to it became an essential part of its nature.

And if a single piece of ordinary biodegradable iron barbed wire can survive a century buried inside a living tree, imagine how many plastic Aquafina bottles our great-great-great-great grandchildren will be digging up 500 years from now.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

When Good Geezers Do Nothing...

—this article contributed by The Professor—

Seriously. This is kind of advertisement is no longer unusual. 
It’s not unusual to be dismayed by the Sunday paper; news is sometimes distressing, and always provocative.  But every once in a while there comes along a bit of trivia that should make a geezer stand up (slowly) and take notice.  

In this Sunday’s Times of London it was reported that men now average over 1700 pounds a year (about 2,300 dollars) on beauty products.  And it’s not just beauty products: gender equity is catching up in areas like cosmetic surgery.  American idol host Simon Cowell (granted, not a role model for most geezers) states that “to me Botox is no more unusual than toothpaste.  Breasts aren’t the only things being augmented either: requests for pectoral implants have risen notably,  and cosmetic surgeon Michael Progers offers: “Men want to enhance their masculinity, so jawline enhancement is important.  George Clooney looks attractive because of his strong jawline.”  Cosmetic interventions such as eyebrow plucking and body waxing are now a common thing, obtaining their own euphemistic description: “manscaping.”

One is tempted to be reasonable and say “so what? To each their own”, and for a while I tried to stay in that camp.  We are supposed to be non-judgemental about things, aren’t we?   But when did exercising judgement get to be such a bad thing to do? And let’s face it: some of this stuff is just ridiculous in a literal sense: it is "eminently worthy of ridicule."

 In thinking about what to do in the face of this encroaching silliness, I am tempted to slightly alter Edmund Burke’s well-known statement about evil and say: “All that is necessary for the triumph of silliness is for good men to do nothing.”  I think that doing nothing (and saying nothing) as this social trend builds is at minimum ill-advised and at worst threatening to the life(style) of sensible, spoiled men —in whose company I place myself.

Of the many advantages men have enjoyed over the years of patriarchy (perhaps unfairly), one of the most appreciated is that we can more or less dress and present ourselves in a way of our own choosing.  As long as men stay relatively neat and clean, with a minimum of body odour, we are have usually been allowed to go about our sartorial business as we please.  In this area there is a marked gender contrast.  Women have been consistently victimized by a culture where,  if they wished to be regarded seriously, a certain adherence to fashion and cosmetic norms is expected.  

One rather obvious example: consider the comment, attention and distraction caused by a woman choosing not to shave her legs. I’m not experienced in this area, but I would guess that most professional women would consider not shaving their legs to be beyond a reasonable possibility in a professional environment.  The social/visual/grooming norm has been set, and there is in this instance little a person can do but conform.  To a lesser degree, these social norms present themselves to women in the need to have hair regularly “done” and to have it done in a relatively current fashion.  I would argue the same could be said for dress. I’m not ashamed to say (although my wife says I should be) that I obtained my current job in 1987 after an interview to which I wore a conservative, cheap JC Penney suit which I had purchased in 1968. Could a woman reasonably choose to show up for a job interview in a twenty year old suit? 

The results of such social norms being set so strongly go beyond mere visual conformity.  Women’s clothes are far more expensive that men’s, and arguably of a much lower quality (they are certainly less durable.)  Women’s hair-cuts cost much more (but this—amusingly—doesn’t stop increasing numbers of men from switching from the cheap, sensible barber shop to the “hair salon.”)  Put simply: unchecked social pressures—and materialism—have contributed to establish social norms that significantly diminish the choices many women can make when determining how to present themselves in a professional environment.

These fellows need a little bit of gentle
ridicule. We geezers owe it to them. How else
will they realize their silliness?
One can argue the forces behind all of this.  Many instinctively point to sexism and assume that men’s “gaze” is the dominant propellant for these expectations.  I would argue that there is a lot of evidence to support the theory that women dress and present themselves as much to impress other women as to impress or attract men, but that’s for a separate essay.  The bottom line is that, by buying fashion magazines, by dressing their children a certain way, by actively noting the choice of dress at public events, by commenting in the rest room on others’ fashion taste (or lack thereof) people create an environment that reinforces certain body and dress expectations.  

Men have traditionally been relatively free from such socially-imposed expectations.  But with men spending 2,300 dollars on beauty products each year, can such expectations be far behind?  Can we prevent the day when a manicure becomes a businessman’s essential preparation for an out of town meeting, or when Botox injections become the antidote when a fifty-something man is labeled “behind the times?”

To my mind—and this will sound harsh—there is only one prudent course of action to take: we must make fun of those men who are contributing to the trend toward adoption of traditionally feminine beauty techniques.  The argument that it isn’t any geezer’s business what a Metrosexual up-and-comer does has a certain first-blush logic.  But when one thinks about how social expectations are formed, and how such expectations can come to impose restrictions (and additional cost) upon men who wish to be considered “traditionalists,” the issue isn’t quite so straightforward. 

Can we count on the fact that we will always be able to show up in a sensible suit and black wing-tips without being labelled “out-of-touch?”  Clearly young men are searching for ways by which they can project a sense of masculinity.  And if the reason young men look to fashion magazines and cosmetic surgery for solutions here because there are no older men close enough to them to provide guidance is only one of many theories to explain some of these trends.  But, really, would a quiet word along the lines of “your bronze base looks good, but—really—men don’t really need that kind of thing” be such a bad thing to offer someone who is seemingly foundering in the complicated currents of gender identity and projection? 

They took Jason, and suggested that he dye his hair and have his nails dealt with, and I said nothing; they took Josh and convinced him that only Dior could possibly be acceptable, and I said nothing; they took Jeremy and introduced him to defoliant, moisturizers and filler, and I said nothing. 
And then they came for me…

Monday, February 11, 2013

Embarrassed for Minnesotans

I'm just a little bit embarrassed for Minnesota today.

Time was when it would have taken a two-foot snowstorm and/or -30 degree temps for a week or two before we'd get at all concerned about the weather. We delighted in being a state that could stoically bear anything and everything the weather gods could throw at us. Not any more, it seems; we've become a state of wimps, judging from the evidence of the last two days.

Over the weekend, the local television news stations were touting a serious and dangerous winter storm bearing in from the southwest. When I looked at the details of the forecast, though, I was rather taken aback: 3-6" of snow, mixed with a little sleet.

And in the event itself, the situation for even more tame—about 2.5-3", maybe.

Now, this is starts to qualify as meaningful
 snow. In my day, we thought nothing of
walking to school barefoot in weather like this.
Not like today's wimpy youth. 
This is no "storm," for crying out loud.  It's barely even a snowfall worth mentioning. Surely back in the day (which is to say the 1950s through 80s) we would barely have given this little bit of weather a second glance. It's no more newsworthy than a full moon once a month. But for the last decade or two, Minnesota has become almost as nervous about the weather as, say, Charlotte NC. It's starting to be embarrassing.

In recent years, the typical evening news forecast of a local television affiliate dedicates a full 15 minutes out of  a thirty minute broadcast to hysteria about the weather. And it isn't just a winter phenomenon; in the summer months, we're now quite hysterical about the incredibly faint odds that we will be sucked up by a tornado during one of the frequent thunderstorms that plague the midwest from April to August.

These days, it's really not uncommon now for Minnesota schools to close if we get a foot of snow, and for mothers to huddle in the basement with their kids if there is a report of a possible tornado 200 or 300 miles away. Back in the days of Geezer youth, on the other hand, I remember exactly zero days when we closed school for snow; and a pending thunderstorm was an opportunity for kids to gather in the yard in excitement and stare with wonder at the sky, hoping desperately that we might see a funnel cloud.

Now, Minnesota has always been overly fascinated by the weather. It comes from our farm heritage, where favorable weather could bless your family's financial stability, and a terrible storm might mean utter bankruptcy. But the traditional farmer, while obsessed with the weather, was and is still a pretty stoic guy. What in the world has lead to this recent collapse of Minnesota weather stoicism?

It is, I think, partly because we have universally become a nation feeling entitled to continual comfort. Our cars these days have dual climate controls—as though it's too much to ask a husband and wife to agree on the temperature settings. We have leather seats that heat our asses in the winter, and cool them in the summer.  It seems to escape people that it makes sense to feel cold when it's cold outside, and to sweat when it's hot. Bad weather is uncomfortable, and hence we feel entitled to complain about it a lot,  since we believe our right to never-ending comfort is inviolable.

Secondly, though, and maybe more importantly, I blame the news media. The networks and local affiliates seem quite desperate for drama these days, and since there is weather every day they must make good use of it for the 24-hour news cycle. Minnesota is not a state where there is a lot of traditional drama, so we make full use of weather to feed the news cycle beast. There is nothing so obvious as the disappointment of a television weather forecaster who must acknowledge that the "storm of the century" he'd been predicting was a flat-out lie.

I hate to say it, but we Minnesotans are on the verge of losing our reputation to the folks in Massachusetts and Connecticut, who didn't complain much at all when they were just belted with 3 ft. of snow. They will complain loads about the Celtics and Patriots, but bear an ice storm very nicely.

Suck it up, fellow Minnesotans. I want to hear no more complaining about the weather this year. Or at least not until ice-fishing season starts next November.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Imaginary Ego

—this article contributed by Mercurious—

It's a common assumption that each individual among us has an ego. That is to say, we have a readily identifiable "I", or "Self” that serves as the author of our experience of the world. We're so sure of it that we capitalize the personal pronoun "I" when we depict it in language, and almost no one (except maybe devout Buddhists) would ever question the existence of the "Self." Writers like Thich Nhat Hann, the very popular Vietnamese spiritualist, will suggest that the utter interconnectedness of all things makes an autonomous, independent ego/self an illusion. And some of the mystical, transcendental writers and artists, from old-timers like Meister Eckhart through new age writers like Echhart Toll will suggest the existence of a kind universal soul that is a more primary reality than the illusion of individual ego.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: virtually all of us take our "self" as a given. We believe that there is a stable and identifiable ego or self lurking within —an entity that is the ground zero, the prime mover of our experience in the world.

But are we really sure of this?  There are moments when an objective view seems to call this assumption into question. For one thing, whatever you might want to define as "self" clearly changes from moment to moment, from circumstance to circumstance. The person I am when at work supervising colleagues in our publishing business is a considerably different person than I am as a father to my adult kids, which is in turn different than the husband I am to my wife, which is much, much different than the smart-ass crony I am when hanging out in the company of my geezer pals. Now, I might be more mercurial than most in this regard, but I daresay this social  variability is true of most everyone. Don’t we  all “wear a face we keep in a jar by the door?” sometimes? Are we really different than Bruce Springsteen when he admits “two faces have I”?

 If there is a definable "self", why is does it vary so much from moment to moment?  If "self" was a piece of hardware, a car, for instance, it's as though it is a Suburu station wagon one moment, a Ford f150 pickup the next, and a Chevy Corvette in the next instant.

And it's not only changing social circumstances that change the self. I'd argue that even in the absence of other people requiring us to don different social stances, each of us really changes rather fluidly from moment to moment. One morning my commute to work might find me to be a very sanguine, philosophical self utterly at peace with the world; another morning might find me grumpy and a little hostile to the world if I've had a bad night (or maybe a little more Scotch than is healthy). Here, too, you are hard pressed to define anything that is a concrete, identifiable Self that remains the same from moment to moment.

And it goes even further. I'd further offer the suggestion that each of us, even in any given moment, is really a multiple personality with different moods and "selves" that interact with one another. This is not psychopathology in any way, just the human experience. We all have moments of inner debate, where we consider the rewards and costs of behavioral choices before adopting a course of action. There are a whole range of human experiences that seem to be based on one aspect of the personality passing judgment on another "self."  Embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride—all these very common human experiences are really nothing more than one "self" observing and passing judgment on another.

So where is the single identifiable "self" that we all want to believe in? If you make a concerted effort to find that self, can you even do it?

So it seems to me that there is another possibility, which is to surrender the defense of the illusion itself. We spend a good deal of energy and angst trying to establish and defend the boundaries of ego and self against other people and the world at large. (As my friend, the Professor puts it, we "take ourselves too seriously").  An awful lot of misery in the world is caused by this effort, both on an individual psychological level as we struggle to be that lonely ego in the world, and, by extension, on a global scale as nations insist on the sanctity of their geographical and ethnic boundaries. Have you ever considered how absurd it is, really, for an individual to be born on the earth, and then to have constraints placed on where he may wander on the surface of the planet? Like "self", national and ethnic identities are pretty false constructs. There  is nothing so imaginary as a line on a map, and nothing so ironic as ethnic groups at war with one another even though genetically there is no difference between them whatsoever. 

What happens, then, if we imagine for a while that it is not a definable "self" that is the author of our experience, but rather that the self is a fluid, ever-changing thing that is actually authored and defined by shifting phenomena? I'm suggesting something exactly opposite to common wisdom: that it is actually experience that defines self, not self that creates experience. Who we are at any given moment is largely governed by the inner and outer phenomena we experience in the moment, not by any kind of prima facie truth.

At the very least, it's an interesting spiritual callisthenic, one that can be rather refreshing and restorative.  You can get the sensation of an enormous burden and weight of artificial responsibility lifted, if for example, you take a few minutes to consider the simple act of breathing. What if there is no "you" that is choosing to breath as an isolated, lonely individual in the world; but rather that the cosmic world is "breathing you" as one element in a larger connected whole. And contrary to the fears that taking such an approach is to surrender free will, I wonder if we'd be considerably more free if relieved of the tyranny of ego defense. This subjugation of ego is, of course, the goal of much spiritual pursuit, and perhaps is the impetus behind the use of mind-altering drugs—ala Aldous Huxley.

And the more discerning among you will now see the inherent dangers in this line of argument. (One of my Geezer friends reviewing this piece prompted that recognition.) While there is certainly some merit for taking a break from ego, it’s also possible for ego/self dissolution to be a problematic event. Drug abuse is one such danger. And one definition of psychosis, in fact, is that it is a personality that has lost all boundaries between self and other. Individual personality that is totally subsumed in collective can lead to nasty things like a Nazi political movement.

So perhaps it is not that ego/self needs to be entirely dissolved, but that we need to take a vacation from it occasionally, or better yet, acknowledge that while Self exists, it is a flexible, fluid entity. Examined closely, the “Self” is a concept that more closely resembles the vaporous nature of a cloud than a fortress to be defended at all costs.  There is considerably freedom in loosing our hold on such an unreal construct.

It's worth considering, anyway.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Look into the VA system.

As my father-in-law has been going through the process of being diagnosed then treated for a heart attack, we've spent quite a lot of time at the Minneapolis VA hospital system over the last three weeks, and it has been quite an eye-opener.

First of all, there is the paradox of the VA system itself. On the one hand, the physical hospital itself, and all the incumbent technology and facilities, are quite state-of-the-art. I have been in private hospitals with very lofty reputations in which the facility itself has been pretty old-fashioned and out-of-date. Not so with the VA, where the hospital building features bright, wide hallways, enormous waiting rooms for families, and intensive care units that really appear to have all the bells and whistles that modern technology can offer.

But managing this finely tuned  race car of a hospital is a managerial system that is positively medieval in its clumsiness and inefficiency. When my father-in-law had his heart attack, he was initially brought to the University of Minnesota, a world-renowned research hospital where the very first open-heart surgeries were pioneered. It's the place where Christian Barnard, the surgeon who performed the first heart transplant, was trained. Today, it is still a world-renowned hospital that is absolutely cutting-edge when it comes to heart treatment. So this is the facility that did the initial work-up on this 87-year old veteran, the hospital that told us precisely what was going on.

But the old guy is part of the VA insurance program, so we needed to then transition to that system for the actual care. The VA, in its infinite wisdom, simply could not or would not accept any of the reports or information offered by one of the world's best hospitals, so it started over from scratch performing the same tests and workups that had already been done (presumably at significant taxpayer expense), and then announced exactly the same findings we already had from two weeks earlier.

As a result, my father in law finally got his by-pass surgery yesterday, a full three-weeks after his initial heart attack. Not within a few days, as you would rightfully expect. A friend of mine, a younger veteran from Vietnam, smiled ruefully when I told him this story, and said this is pretty much the same story as with the American military itself—great, space age equipment, but an administrative system that is utterly feudal in its processes and logic.

Ironically enough, once you get into the system, you then rise above the administrative nightmare at the VA.  The actual teams doing heart surgeries for the VA are the same top-notch teams from the University of Minnesota, who come over a couple of days each week to bang out these heart surgeries like nobody's business. The heart ICU units and all the doctors and nurses there are consumate professionals, and we couldn't be more pleased with what we've seen, once we made it about the first-floor administrative offices. Within six hours of having his chest split wide open, his heart stopped and replumbed and then jolted back to life, the old guy was awake, alert, and asking when he'd be able to fish again.

I've spent quite a lot of time at the VA cafeteria recently, and this, too, is an interesting study. The clientele is divided into two rough groups these days. There is an older segment that includes veterans and families from the era of Vietnam through WW2, and a much younger segment populated by the folks from the various gulf and afghanistan conflicts.

It was a little startling for me at first to see that the Vietnam and WW2 vets seem like part of the same club, now. In my own head, of course, since Vietnam was the war of my own youth, I think of these guys as being far, far younger than WW2 vets. But these groups look much more like each other now than they do to the younger vets, and that makes sense when you think about it. Vietnam started in the mid 60s, less than 20 years after WW2 ended, and the older Vietnam vets are approaching 70 years of age, some of them. On the timeline of history, these groups are quite close together when compared to the youngsters fighting in Afghanistan today.

While there is a similarity of appearance between the Vietnam vets in their mid to late 60s and the 80-year olds from WW2, with their grey hair and gimpy knees, it's interesting to see how the Vietnam vets set themselves apart. There is a kind of uniform you see among those vets seeking treatment at the VA. Many of them wear caps, for example. Rarely are these armed forces caps; baseball teams, farm implement companies, fishing tackle manufacturers,; all these are advertised on the caps worn by so many Vietnam vets. You also see quite a few of the soft "bush" caps that resemble the soft fishing hats sometimes worn by fly fishermen. In the winter, it's pretty common to see these vets dress in hooded sweatshirts under heavy plaid flannel overshirts. It's so common as to be something of a stereotype. Vietnam was a pretty working class group, by and large, since so many of the college boys deferred in those days of the draft.

The WW2 vets, aside from being notably older when you look closer, seem to be prouder of their heritage, as they are more likely to wear clothing that is marked with quiet references to the armed forces branch or even the ships or divisions in which they served. Other than this, though, there is little to distinguish them from retired school teachers or hardware clerks.

But the larger group now are the veterans from the Gulf and Afghanistan, with very young families including toddlers and infants. It's a little shocking to see 26-year old fathers without legs bouncing infant children on their laps as they sit in wheelchairs waiting to see their doctors. And there are so many of them: so many young men with missing limbs or heavily bandaged legs that are being salvaged.  Minneapolis serves the needs of five full midwestern states, and so many of the worst injuries come here for treatment.

As difficult as life was for the Vietnam era vets, I fear it will be worse for this group. Three separate wars spread over a long, long historical period means that are many, many of these veterans who will come to depend on the VA system as they grow older. And because battlefield treatment is so much better these days, there are great many very seriously injured soldiers who might not have survived the same injuries had they been incurred in 1968.

In a few years, the plight of this veterans group could well be worse than that experienced by my own contemporaries from the Vietnam period. And it seems to be already starting, as a newpaper story this morning reported that veterans are committing suicide at the rate of 22 each day.