Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Monday, April 29, 2013

Citizens of 4F, April 29, 2013

Minneapolis folks are a little confused today, weatherwise, and it’s easy to understand why. Within the space of 10 days we’ve had a major 12-inch winter storm snow, then some warm days culminated by a two delicious weekend days of 80 degrees. The citizens of the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis this morning reflected that confusion, with garb ranging from cutoff shorts, tanktop T-shirts and open sandals (the kids heading for DeLaSalle high school on Nicollet island), to gloves and scarves (some of the older professionals heading for the downtown offices).

Danny seems confused in a slightly different way. Probably in his early 60s, he doesn’t fit into any of the standard downtown stereotypes. On the surface, he projects a kind of western cowboy appearance, with a Stetson hat and rust-colored canvas barn coat. It’s not quite consistent, though, as he also wears what appears to be older negative heel shoes (we used to call them Earth shoes, in my day), aviator-style wire-rimmed glasses, and newer JC Penny denim jeans (not Wranglers, not even Levis). His sand-colored hair is longish under the stetson, and his short beard is a mixture of white and buff, like the remnants of a small wood fire that leaves its white ashes mixed among the coarse sands on a beach.

Most unusual is the plastic covering for his Stetson, which fits like some kind of shower-cap, with an elastic band the snugs it up under the brim. Real cowboys, I'm told, will wear such a raincoat for their treasured stetsons on stormy days. But it's bright sun in Minneapolis today, and this covering looks like it is worn permanently on Danny's hat.  On the top surface of the hat’s brim, the plastic fits tight and smooth, almost like it’s been glued in place, but on the upper dome of the hat, there is too much plastic and it bunches loosely around the dome of the Stetson: I can’t help but think of the image of an extra-large Trojan condom being worn by a man who really needs the standard size. 

It’s very hard to gauge Danny’s story, though he projects the energy of someone a little down on his luck. I find myself wondering if the entire outfit is simply what he was able to find at some second-hand store recently. When the seat next to him gets taken as the bus fills up, Danny looks steadfastly out the window in embarrassed shyness, away from his seat companion, for the rest of the trip. And my hunch that he doesn’t fit the downtown society is right; he gets off the bus on Franklin Avenue well before downtown, a street dominated on this stretch by bars, soup kitchens, day labor offices, check-cashing shops and other businesses serving the edges of society.

It’s too far from my own office and would cause me to be late for work to do so, but I’m tempted to follow Danny to obtain clues to a little bit more of his story. But I think somehow that he has troubles enough, without adding a strange middle-aged guy stalking him on Franklin Avenue at 7:00 am in a monday morning. 

As I watch him walk up the street, Danny hobbles just a little, but his steps are quick and he's making good time. As he reaches a gap between two building, full daylight fall upon him, and a beam of sunlight gleams off the plastic covering of his Stetson. Not a real cowboy maybe, but Danny has every right to the same springtime sunshine that favors us all. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Spirit Airline, This Ain't

Tom over at Light Breezes (his link is in the right column) posted this,  and I couldn't resist sharing this. I fly fairly frequently on business, but always in coach except for very rare occasions when I get bumped into first class. But Delta first class never, ever looks like Emeratus first class on an Airbus 380 double-decker jumbo jet....

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mercurious on Books: April 24, 2013

Every so often, I get on a jag of reading books in a particular genre, or everything I can by one author. Awhile back, Jeffery Eugenides struck my fancy, and in the space of a week I devoured all four of his very excellent novels.

In recent years, though, it's often been science/nature non-fiction that strikes my fancy, with writers like John McPhee, Edward Abbey, Sebastian Junger, Mary Roach, Stephen Jay Gould serving as favorite targets for weeks at a time.

Last week I mentioned a book called Spillover, an excellent book about the heroic characters who trace the originals of highly infectious diseases the "crossover" from animal species to humans. This week, I'm highly recommending Blind Descent, an accounting by James M. Tabor of the race to find the deepest cave on earth a few years ago.  From the publisher's description:
The deepest cave on earth was a prize that had remained unclaimed for centuries, long after every other ultimate discovery had been made: both poles by 1912, Everest in 1958, the Challenger Deep in 1961. In 1969 we even walked on the moon. And yet as late as 2000, the earth’s deepest cave—the supercave—remained undiscovered. This is the story of the men and women who risked everything to find it, earning their place in history beside the likes of Peary, Amundsen, Hillary, and Armstrong. In 2004, two great scientist-explorers are attempting to find the bottom of the world. Bold, heroic American Bill Stone is committed to the vast Cheve Cave, located in southern Mexico and deadly even by supercave standards. On the other side of the globe, legendary Ukrainian explorer Alexander Klimchouk—Stone’s polar opposite in temperament and style, but every bit his equal in scientific expertise, physical bravery, and sheer determination—has targeted Krubera, a freezing nightmare of a supercave in the Republic of Georgia, where underground dangers are compounded by the horrors of separatist war in this former Soviet republic.
This hardly does the book justice, as I've rarely seen a work of non-fiction that more compellingly recreates the sense of adventure and danger that is inherent in the lives of world-class explorers. Even in the armchair, you may have trouble not feeling uncomfortably claustrophobic. At one point, for example, we hear about one assault on a super cave the required the team to crawl on their bellies through crevices no bigger than the underside of your kitchen sink cabinet for three consecutive, non-stop days, at point wriggling through constrictions that required them to exhale completely in order to squeeze through. The literature of cave exploration is full of instances where cavers get caught in such squeezes, with their rescuers forced to break their bones and dislocated their joints to extricate them. In the midst of these expeditions forcing people underground for two or three weeks at a time, there was the ever-present danger of the Mexican rainy season coming early, filling 4 miles of cave entirely with water. Death among explorers of super caves is said to be far greater than among those who try to conquer Mt. Everest.

I can't recommend this one highly enough for armchair adventurers of Geezer vintage.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Aprils

Since it appears that Minnesota has now entered the next great ice age, I'll take this opportunity to show you, with great fond memories, what my front garden looked like last year at the end of April, with tulips blooming and irises approaching bloom.

And, though I've been complaining about it plenty already, here's what April looked like late last week:

With that, I am hereby done with whining about the weather. Politics, movies, office politics: I'll continue to whine about these, but the weather is now off the table.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mercurious at the Movies: April 20, 2013

It's rather in vogue to dislike Tom Cruise these days, and indeed there is much reason to roll your eyes when it comes to reviewing his public persona. The apparent arrogance of the man, the role as Scientology puppet, the carefully orchestrated and controlled PR machine....he's not a fellow that earns a lot of accolades for what he's done with his fame.

But when I think carefully about the movies I've seen featuring Tom Cruise, I have to conclude that there is a certain type of big-budget "B" movie (maybe B-plus) that he's really pretty good at.  And in his occasional turns in self-parody, he's also very good. Among the Tom Cruise movies I've thoroughly enjoyed:  Risky Business, Color of Money, Rain Man, Mission Impossible 1, Magnolia, The Last Samauri, Collateral, Mission Impossible III, Tropic Thunder, Rock of Ages.  In fact, when you look at the entire list of 40 or so films, there are really fewer dogs than you might imagine, given the actor is somebody you'd really like to dislike.  I realized that I very often wince when going into a theater showing a Tom Cruise movie, only to emerge a couple hours later to say to myself "not bad," or even "pretty darned good."

To this list I'll now add Oblivion, a very stylish and surprisingly thoughtful dystopian sci-fi film that features great special effects, but used in a manner that remains subordinate to an even more interesting story line. This isn't "Star Wars," for example (films that always frankly bored me  little with their ridiculous cartoon quality), but much more like "Inception" or "2001" in its visual stylishness and conceptual nature.

It's also a very nice homage to some of the very best classic sci-fi of modern times. It has bit of the best aspects of Star Wars effects, as well as traces of the Matrix, Terminator, Star Trek, Close Encounters, and most significantly, 2001, A Space Odyssey. If you are a fan of modern sci fi classics, you will recognize nods to those films in the imagery and directing.

Now, Tom Cruise's ego is such that he will always be "Movie Star ", and is unlikely to find a more socially conscious position in the Hollywood world, like former pretty-boy actors Brad Pitt and George Clooney pulled off. He could never imagine Cruise working with Terrence Malick in a pure art film, for example. Nor can you really imagine Cruise becoming a politically aware humanitarian spokesman like George Clooney or Ben Affleck. He's too self-absorbed for that.  But really, Tom Cruise needs credit where it's due. Oblivion is really quite a good movie, and may be as good a sci-fi thriller as you'll see this year.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Spring that Wasn't

There are many, many, many good things about Minnesota life. Really, there are.

This isn't one of them.

The first measurable snow this winter came in the third week of October, 2012.  Six months later, this was the scene that greeted me this morning. This in itself wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that our humid, sultry summers are about 4 months long...this means that of the two pleasant seasons of the year, spring is approximately 3 weeks long, and fall a mere 5 weeks or so.

Sigh. I need to think about that retirement to Costa Rica.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Saturday Book Review, April 13, 2011

Like a lot of people who spent their youths in and around farms and farming culture, I have a bit of distain for the paranoia with which most Americans view ordinary microbes, the obsessive concern with cleanliness so rampant in America.  And there's some justification for this: one theory as to why there is such a high incidence of asthma, allergies, and intestinal problems is that people today are too clean, and don't have healthy mixtures of normal everyday microbes and bacteria. It's been shown for example, that farm kids have relatively few instances of asthma, and the reason is that their systems are more robust through lifelong exposure to animal and soil microbes. The people who get flu regularly always seem like the same people overly concerned about hand-washing and general cleanliness.

But reading David Quammen's Spillover has given me a bit of a chill. The next time I vist a farm or zoo, I'll likely be a little more likely to wash up after scratching the critters under the chin.

Quammen's book is a series of case studies of the epidemiology of various cases of zoonotic illnesses—viral diseases that start in other species and spillover into human populations. Like Richard Preston's Hot Zone (though featuring better science) or Laurie Garret's The Coming Plague (but narrower in focus and more up to date scientifically), Spillover is a fascinating and chilling study of the dynamics by which viral diseases arise in human populations and are identified and combatted by disease control experts.

The book examines many of the diseases with current buzz in popular culture, including HIV, avian influenza, swine flu, and ebola. Contrary to popular opinion though—which is that our courageous scientific community can find the answers to most of these problems—the message coming through is the rueful acknowledgement that for a great many of these diseases, we really know next to nothing about the original hosts of the diseases, not have any real idea of how to control them. Ebola virus, for example, has entirely decimated large populations of chimpanzees an gorillas in many forested regions of Africa, and is 75% fatal whenever it spills over into humans, yet we know absolutely nothing about whether it originates in bats, or birds, or insects, and we know almost as little about how it is transmitted.

A highly recommended book, to be sure, though one that might keep you up nights.

By the way, whenever you are looking for a good book to read, I heartily recommend looking up any list of National Book Award nominees from a recent year. Invariably, you will find excellent suggestions. It is a far better predictor of fine reading than, say, the NYT best-seller list.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Too Much Freedom Can Enslave You

"Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites....Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without...Men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions are their fetters."  —Edmund Burke—
 I came upon this quote again in an unusual context recently. David Brooks, in a NYT article syndicated in my local paper, was arguing that the reason Americans are steadily coming around to acceptance of gay marriage is that marriage, by its nature, is a voluntary surrender of personal freedom—two people choosing to relinquish individual freedom for the sake of union. Brooks suggests that because modern culture is now so overwhelmed with demands and exhibitions of personal liberty, people are secretly admiring the contrary impulse toward sacrificing liberty, and are quietly applauding the gay community for their willingness to do just that.
"Johnny has two grandmas" 

A slightly odd argument, to be sure. But the underlying observation about personal liberty and freedom is worth exploring.

I acknowledge a bit of irony that I find Burke's sentiment so appealing these days. As Geezer friends will tell you, in my youth I spoke like some kind of borderline anarchist. But I have lived a good stretch of time now, and have come recognize an interesting paradox:  pure, total freedom is exhausting and diminishing, and you actually become freer when you voluntarily surrender some of your liberty. It's similar to the way in with free-verse poetry is generally gibberish, whereas poets who dedicate themselves to the limitations of iambic pentameter or sonnets can produce masterworks: a life that is lived entirely without boundaries quickly becomes life that is pretty much meaningless.

David Brooks, in this fascinating article (titled "Gay Marriage: A group of Folks Willing to Give up Freedom), argues that modern American life has become so mindlessly dedicated to utter and complete personal liberty that we are no longer very free at all. There is, he says, a backlash beginning among us. The demand of gay culture to be granted the right to marry is paradoxically an self-imposed offer to curtail freedom in order to achieve something more meaningful.

I couldn't agree more with the underlying premise. Here are a handful of observations regarding "libertarian" trends that turn out to be enslaving.

Not Mecurious' wedding. But pretty close. 
 Bypassing marriage. It was once nearly a social must that young adults would eventually settle into married life. In 1979, this was so much the expectation that my partner and I, when we tied the knot at age 23, felt like we were a little late to the party. 34 years later, things could be no more different.

It was also generally expected that children would be conceived and raised within the context of marriage. Young couples did conceive kids, obviously, but in most of these cases the couples quietly got married if a child was conceived. And these marriages were not disastrous, generally, as is sometimes believed today.  Some shot-gun marriages were problematic, sure, but quite a lot of these accidentally necessary marriage went on to be perfectly good lifelong unions. 

Flashforward 34 years and we’re now at a point that among young adults under the age of 30, more live together as non-married couples than as married. There’s nothing wrong with kids testing the waters before tying the knot—Mrs. Mercurious and I did it too, and our own kids are living that way right now to perfectly fine results.

Looking around, though, and you’ll notice that a good many adults are bypassing the committed married life forever. And in most cases they will tell you it’s a matter of “wanting their freedom.” And it has also become perfectly acceptable to conceive kids in these circumstances—I’ve heard teachers tell me that at least 25% of their students have parents who aren’t married.

And if you are married, the freedom to easily leave that marriage if you don't like it is now taken as a given. Easily more than half of all unions end in divorce, and folks with three or four marriages  are no longer uncommon at all. It is, of course, true that we once were too rigid in maintaining marriages where abuse or fatal incompatibility were inherent. But almost everyone who has stuck through the normal good and bad times of a marriage for decades will tell you what a blessing it can be. In a marriage where there is commitment and voluntary surrender of some personal liberty, the reward is the freedom to be yourself without the fear that a partner will flee at the least sign of discomfort. And there is actually considerable freedom in surrendering the narcissism of single life. 

Aren't you glad for the freedom to be a single parent?
A related trend is that of having and raising kids in one-parent households. Sometimes this is the result of flightly partnerships or marriages breaking up, but it’s also quite common for young women to simply choose to have kids alone. This sounds like freedom to choose, of course, on the part of those parents. But how free is a parent who must struggle both to make a living and to nurture and raise kids all alone?  The folks I know who parent this way are pretty much exhausted all the time, with virtually no freedom of relaxation or socialization. Whether straight or gay, making the personal sacrifice to raise kids with a partner surely must increase your genuine freedom in the long run.

Relaxation of drug prohibition.  This is a tricky one, as the insane paranoia of Reagan-era punishment for simple drug use was not something I'd advise returning to. But I seriously question whether it's really wise to make drug use, even for marijuana, broadly legal as seems to be the growing trend.  Society needs to voluntarily set some limits on itself, and I think my youth would have been much impaired without the secret thrill of breaking the law by sneaking an occasional joint. What juvenile thrill is available, if every behavior is judged acceptable and legal and you can choose among dozens of cannabis brands at the medicinal marijuana shop on the corner?

In the words of BB King: "The thrill is gone."
Real freedom, it seems to me, lies in clear consciousness. Did you ever know a drug addict who appeared free? I'm certainly freer now in self-imposed prohibition than I was in the youthful days when occasional chemical abuse was present in my life. 

Even the trend locally toward making liquor available for sale 24 hours a day and seven days a week seems like a bad idea to me. Though no teetotaler, I think occasional self-imposed restraint on this front is a helpful thing.

The collapse of 40-hour work weeks and 5 day work weeks. Time was when it was pretty much a social rule that the workweek ended at 5:00 on Friday afternoon, resumed at 8:00 Monday morning, with the individual work days in between following those same time boundaries. As anybody in the modern workplace knows, though, to get ahead now requires considerably more than that. I actually work a fairly relaxed workweek myself, yet it's entirely common to put in 50 or 55 hours each week, and 60 or 70 occasionally happens. I have friends who routinely work 80 hours a week. We do this, basically, to outperform our peers and thereby make enough money to buy the very nice things available to us.

And yet, the freedom to earn as much money as our energy allows means we've lost the
Today's "starter home."
freedom of unscheduled time in which to enjoy them. Rereading Bill Bryson's "Thunderbolt Kid" memoir recently, I observed his wry comment on just this—two wage earner homes really became a necessity in the late 60s simply because the post-war industrial society converted from war manufacture was offering so many tantalizing toys and products and appliances that you needed two careers in order to afford them.  To our grandparents, the notion that two automobiles are a family necessity would be laughable. Now, for many of us, two cars doesn't seem likely nearly enough.

When geezers like the Professor and I were kids in a small Midwestern town with a predominately Scandinavian culture, it was regarded as an embarrassment and affront to display too many conspicuously expensive things around your home. These days, perfectly good, habitable homes are routinely torn down to make way for monstrous mini-mansions that serve little purpose other than to make the neighbors feel subservient. Yet it’s the owners of these new Taj Mahals who must work like absolute slaves in order to afford the feeling of lordliness.

Lax traffic law enforcement. Generally speaking, getting a traffic ticket these days is pretty hard, compared to my young adult years. On Minnesota freeways, you have to be moving at about 80 mph in a 55 mph zone to even be mildly worried about getting stopped. And basic pedestrian protection is such a joke that the small city of Minneapolis sees, on average, one pedestrian a week killed or gravely injured. (This cuts two ways; walking back from lunch the other day, I observed so many pedestrians ignoring "don't walk" signs while drivers ignored the "walk" permissions, that the entire landscape was one chaotic mess.) 

Drivers ticketed for speeding will now react with righteous indignation, arguing cases in court. "It's my right to drive as I see fit," goes the argument. But traffic laws is one of those prime examples of the benefit of voluntarily giving up freedom to gain the freedom of peace of mind. Without traffic laws (or laws in general) can you imagine how exhausted you'd be, just from the free-for-all of driving a shopping mall on Saturday? I can't see that a highway system dominated by road rage is somehow more free than ones where traffic laws are fully enforced.

Softening of ethical/moral training.  Now, I'm very much for separation of church and state. I really cannot stand the idea of public schools mandating Christian prayer; it's not exactly a religious underpinning that I'm advocating.  But some form of ethical and moral training seems quite necessary in society. The tide began to turn, I think, when it became acceptable for the government to sponsor and encourage state-sponsored gambling. To do so seems exactly opposite to the role government should be taking—which is encourage citizens to be diligent, responsible, and fiscally careful. 

I recently heard an editor propose investment on a book of advice for people who want
Not as much fun as you think.
to "swing" in their romantic/sexual relationships. The idea that such practice is now seen as standard and acceptable is quite strange to anyone who has lived a little while on the planet.  The appeal of this kind of life can only be held by immature young adults holding a deluded sense that they are entitled to utter liberty to do what they want, and who haven't recognized the consequences. As a child of the 60s and 70s, I've certainly known people who thought this kind of life would be enjoyable and interesting. Without exception, these same people in their geezer years acknowledge that it was a horrible mistake, and they are profoundly remorseful for those times. 

(Oddly, the decline of a moral/ethical framework in society on the one hand seems to explain the shrill presence of an ultra-conservative religious right on the other. I strongly suspect that if society at large still had a solid moral underpinning, these wackos would cease to have an audience.)

So my takeaway is this: complete and full personal liberty is frankly a huge pain in the ass. If you have freedom to make each and every choice in life, no matter how trivial the issue, you then are forced to make each and every decision and live with the consequences. It would be exhausting, especially as we get older and simply haven’t the energy for anarchy any longer. Adults (and cultures) who mature from childhood into reasonable adults seem to eventually recognize the merit of surrendering some personal liberty in order to genuinely pursue happiness. Happiness requires carefully selected freedom, not universal liberty. 

But by and large, modern culture today seems to be having trouble maturing.  We seem to labor under the delusion that absolute personal liberty is something that is good for us, and which we deserve from our society. 

Silly us. We deserve better than that.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Pleasant Downtown Surprise

I found something of a gem today in downtown Minneapolis. Like most cities, our small midwestern enclave has striking little examples of very nice architecture that won't make any national registries but are still very nice in their own way. 

The Lumber Exchange is one such little gem in Minneapolis. It was built in 1885 to serve the bartering of timber goods in the upper midwest, much the same way the grain exchanges began to have their hey-day a few years later. The upper midwest was, of course, densely forested with amazing stands of pine in the 19th century, and this building served as a small "stock exchange" for the buying and selling of lumber moving down the upper Mississippi River and then onward to other US cities and foreign ports. 

(Actually, at the time the Exchange was built, furs and other traded goods could be transported south via river only this far due to white water rapids here, and then had to be transferred. A few years later, when the army corps of engineers constructed the lock-and-dam network to making full length river shipping a possibility, the gain and flour industry that was replacing the timber industry in the upper Midwest would find it possible to ship all the way to New Orleans via the mighty river. But before 1900 or so, the Grain Exchange, and indeed the city of Minneapolis itself, had sprouted because this was the spot where river transportation had to give way to wagons, trains, and other means of transporting traded goods from the north. The stretch of rapids here offered other benefits: it powered mills for sawing the timber into lumber, and later, grinding grain into flour.)

I have walked through this building at least a couple of times a week for five or six years now, because it is connected to other parts of downtown via skyway. Even in good weather, though, the hardwood and marble interior surfaces alway draw my attention. Though I know nothing about architecture, really, I certainly do know what appeals to me, and the Lumber Exchange is one such structure I'll go out of my way to see regularly. 

Today, though, I had to drop off some work-related paperwork at a lawyers office on the sixth floor of the Lumber Exchange building, and for the first time I used the elevator in the building. As I rose to the intended floor, I saw that the back of the elevator was glass paneled, and that once above the third floor, looked out upon an entirely walled off atrium that extended all the way from the third to the 12th floor. The enclosed atrium had a modern water feature in it, and was surrounded by small patio tables and park benches. Best of all, nobody at all seemed to be using it, even though we were in the heart of lunch hour. 

After running my errand, I got off on the third floor and entered the atrium. It had been formed, I saw, by closing off the alleys to seal the space between three separate building occupying the entire city block: the L-shaped Lumber Exchange, a modern addition to that structure added in perhaps the 1960's, and another building that is otherwise pretty ordinary. The roof area had then framed in by timbers and lined with skylights far above. The result was a restful little indoor park area, with dim diffused lighting offered by the sky far above that is augmented by period street lamps and fixtures attached to the old brickwork that once formed the back outside walls of the buildings within the back alleys. 

For the half hour I sat there quietly, not another soul appeared, and I realized I'd discovered a rather perfect place for a bit of quiet reflection on those days when the hustle of the office and downtown gets on my nerves. The sound and sight of running water from the fountain gives this space a very nice Zen-like aura.  On warm summer days, I have another outdoor park that serves this function, but on cold and rainy days (and they are plentiful in Minnesota) this new refuge will serve nicely. 

Such discoveries are the reason I'm constantly glad that we moved our office from sterile suburbs to an urban downtown.