Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Friday, June 28, 2013

Citizens of 4F: June 28, 2013

During the spring, when I sat on left (east) side of the 4F bus in the morning as it traveled into downtown,  I frequently saw Sally on her bicycle at the corner of 42 st. and Bryant Avenue, Sally looked to be about 12 or 14 years old, and when I saw her she was usually paused at the curb straddling her bike, waiting for traffic to clear so she could cross.  Presumably she was heading to school.

Sally rides one of the old-fashioned bikes for girls, with the dropped front cross bar designed for easy use by girls. These bikes are somewhat rare these days, as most bicycling girls ride standard 10-speed or 15-speed bikes with the straight crossbar. But this type of traditional girl's bike is very helpful for Sally, because she is particularly tiny of stature.

Sally is very short for her age, although her facial features and arms and legs are fairly average in shape,  Sally's genetic condition makes her what political correctness now calls a "little person."  Some years ago we would have called this condition dwarfism. So the this bike is particularly useful for Sally, since a traditional bicycle would be difficult indeed for her to ride comfortably.

Sally's facial expression most mornings is one of melancholia, so often that  on the rare occasion when some private thought makes her look happy, it stands out as the exception to the rule. It makes me wonder at the reasons for the sad expression she wears nine days out of ten.

Is Sally simply one of those people who takes a while to wake up in the morning?  Will she grow steadily cheerier as the day goes on, as is the case with some people? Is she simply glum about going to school on nice spring days?  That's not usually in healthy young adolescents. Do I pay more attention to her because of her physical unusualness?  Is she really just like everybody else? After all, when people don't know you're looking at them, the expression you see is usually one of worried consternation, if not outright unhappiness. Members of the human species rarely look happy when viewed in social isolation.

What I imagine, though, is that her unusual condition creates a special isolation for Sally. Dwarfism, I've read, is a steadily decreasing phenomenon, which means those living with it have steadily fewer genuine peers. Sally is much more unusual now than she would have been 20 years ago, and perhaps it's the fact that she alway draws second looks that creates her melancholia. What teenager, except for cheerleaders and performance athlete, likes to be stared at? In the dozens of days I've seen Sally on the street, she has never looked up at the bus as it passes; she doesn't need to, because she knows full well that people above notice her and swivel their necks to keep looking as the bus passes.

I wonder if Sally, as she enters her teen years, will have a particularly difficult time developing relationships. Is this part of what's on her mind in the mornings? It would take a particularly mature  and sensitive male teenager to look past Sally's physical condition to the possibilities of romance. Mature and sensitive teenage boys aren't exactly common. Sally almost certainly will feel more isolation than most teenagers in this regard.

Suddenly one day Sally stopped appearing at the corner in the morning, and for a brief time I was worried about her—until I realized that the school year had ended and she no longer had the need to venture out early each morning. When school starts in the fall, Sally may well have now moved on to high school that requires a different bike route, so it's entirely possible I won't ever see her again.

But I'll continue to wonder how she's doing.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Is Tolerance Always a Virtue?

It's widely believed that tolerance and patience is a virtue that most of us need to cultivate. Liberals, especially, like to pretend they are supremely tolerant, especially on issues such as free speech. Now, my friend The Professor sometimes argues with good merit that this is a bit disingenuous, because liberals can be shrill indeed when it comes to verbal intolerance of conservative political ideals. He says, with some justification, that had a conservative president made the kind of recent public policy faux pas of the Obama group, the outrage would be deafening. But I'd argue that political discourse exists on a different level that everyday moral tolerance or intolerance that occurs outside the realm of political discourse.

After all, vocal though they might be, it's rather rare for liberal social intolerance to reach the level of violent reaction. You really can't imagine, for example, that right-to-choose proponents would routinely murder church leaders who preach against abortion, or those who argue against birth control.  No, the intolerance of liberals is generally political, and is of the verbal, passive, argumentative type. The last time liberals seemed really ready to physically fight for their beliefs, it was 1972 or so. Since then, we've elevated passivity to a virtue. 

Yesterday on Nicollet Avenue, one of those extreme evangelists on a soap box held a placard that said "God Hates You," printed on the back side with by list of bullet points enumerating the behaviors that made each of us worthy of Yahweh's loathing:  

"Fag thoughts" 
"Dressing like a whore"
"Loving animals"

(Yep. He was actually arguing that recycling is a sin).

This guy was, as far as I can gather, of the same ilk as those people from Westboro Baptist Church who picket the funerals of fallen soldiers, arguing that God has killed them in retribution for society's evil ways. 

As the crowds waited for stoplights to change at crosswalks, this fellow screamed insults at everyone in the most blatant display of intolerant hatred you can imagine. If a pretty girl walked by in a short skirt, the abuse was cruel indeed, as it was for a couple of fellows who may or may not have been gay. It was not mental illness we were witnessing; this fellow was well groomed,  had professionally printout hand-outs, the whole nine yards. But the civilized, and oh-so-tolerant response of the liberal downtown Minneapolitans was....complete non-response. To a person, the good citizens ignored the hate monger utterly. I watched for 20 minutes, and not once did anyone confront this fellow. There wasn't so much as a disgusted shake of the head. Only supreme, utter tolerance for extremely bad behavior. 

Now, perhaps this sounds like a mature, responsible citizenry respecting the right of all to speak their minds. But where is it written that a crackpot's right to speak hate is more important that our rights to a peaceful walk along the streets at lunchtime?  I wonder, really, if it is really responsible and wise, as citizens, to make such a Herculean effort to tolerate the intolerable. 

How long would this jackass continue his effort if people expressed more outrage when people behave so badly? When did we come to believe that when faced with unacceptable, intolerable behavior, the correct thing to do is tolerate it?

Maybe our moral imperative is swift, decisive intolerance of some things.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Citizens of 4F, June 20, 2013

Ned is an older gentleman, perhaps 70 or 75. He is lean, quick and lithe as he boards the bus, with no evidence of arthritic joints. He wears with a long full beard and dresses in expensive casual clothes. Now that the weather is warm he frequently wears a crisp long-sleeved button-down shirt, sleeves carefully folded up to mid forearm, under a high-quality trout fisherman's vest. Perhaps he has actually done some fly fishing in his day, but I don't think so. This vest, at least, seems to be more fashion statement than practical garment. I would guess he likes the outdoors, but perhaps more as a hiker or birdwatcher than as an active fisherman.

His trousers are carefully pressed khaki of a color that exactly matches his vest, and his footwear is clearly expensive, walking shoes of supple brown leather. Upon boarding the bus, he immediately switches to a pair of reading glasses, his hands very precise as he dons the reading glasses, tosses the lanyard over his head and carefully folds his other glasses and places them in his shirt pocket. His hands draw your attention; old hands but flexible and quick, without age spots or serious wrinkles. A man who has used his hands for finely detailed work; not muscular labor.

He immediately takes a book from his bag; it is a good quality illustrated book, and from my vantage point appears to be a book of color prints from modernistic art done in the 1930s or thereabout. There is precision about the way Ned turns the pages; his hands are elegant and careful, and I wonder if he might be a retired art director or graphic designer. The fact that his book carries the stamp of the public library supports the possibility that he's retired and on fixed income, as does the fact he's riding the public bus. His clothes and book bag are clearly quite expensive, though, and were perhaps purchased at a more affluent time in life.

Other days have supported my hunch about his artistic background; sometimes Ned pulls a sketch book from his bag and quietly sketches quick profiles of the passengers around him with a charcoal pencil to pass the time on the bus ride into downtown.

One morning I decided to stop a few blocks early in downtown to get coffee at a favorite shop, and realized that Ned is already in line ahead of me. He was obviously a regular (the fact that the shop owner greeted him familiarly is the reason I know Ned's name), and I began to get a mental picture of what Ned's days might be like. A leisurely start at the coffeeshop, followed by a stroll to the public library for a scholarly few hours, and then perhaps lunch with old colleagues at a former office or a walk along the shady Mississippi riverfront before taking the bus back home in the afternoon.

Much to envy there.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Early Sunday morning, my dad and I sit in the living room and watch the swarms of prairie birds swarm around his feeders outside the picture window. The nectar that attracts these flocks to the yard is, believe it or not, large dishes on the top of the fence,heaped with mounds of ordinary grape jelly, which my Dad buys in huge tubs at the Cosco store in Brookings SD. I can't imagine that true bird experts would see this as good nutrition for birds, but it makes Dad happy to see these flocks, and frankly I find it pretty amazing, too.

We've made it through all the difficult estate planning issues the day before, when I was pleased to find Dad's  comprehension pretty intact. He asks perceptive, sharp questions, even though he occasionally forgets some of the things we've talked about just a few minutes earlier. The new oxygen dispensing pump doesn't have the annoying click of the old one, and now that we're done with the issues I've been dreading, the visit is relaxed. I find myself considering the oddities of the rural Midwest culture as we comfortably watch the birds outside.

We're also watching the series of half-hour morning programs on television as we drink coffee and watch the birds. We're only a couple hundred miles west of Minneapolis, a relatively modern little city that lies at the top of the Mississippi bluff country valleys, but the feeling of this area is light years different. South Dakota is literally visible from the house, and we're in the dead center of the massive wheat and corn belt that runs all the way from Texas to Canada. Some of these farms are more like ranches, with spreads of 1,000 or 2,000 acres. Agriculture and fundamental ethics are the heart of the region. In this part of the world, the half hour Sunday TV programs alternate: a evangelical Christian program for 30 minutes, then a half hour of farming information for the owners of the big grain farms in the area, then back to the Bible-banging.

 In the first Christian program, viewers call in to ask trivia questions regarding the Bible.  "So what are exactly are the demons that come to visit people in the old testament?"  asks one viewer the host, a fellow with carefully slicked-back hair and a suit of the style we used to call a "leisure."

Now, with my more or less broad education, I have come to view the Bible and other religious texts as folk literature that offer allegories articulating some aspect of the human experience. For example, I see the idea of "demons" as symbolic of some human mental disturbance.  Such a story of demons is an ancient fable, in other words, that refers to what we would now call depression or pyschosis.

But the host of the 7:00 am program corrects my misunderstanding. "Some people think that demons are visitors from the land of the dead," he said on high-definition, big screen TV from a signal beamed thousands of miles, bouncing off a satellite positioned in space. "This is not true, however. Demons are not visitors from the land of the dead," he says, as though imparting a thrilling secret.  " The demons the Bible speaks of are actually simply fallen angels....thank you for your question, Denise."

The next program is for farmers, in which incredibly sophisticated soil chemistry is discussed by soil scientists. Today's farmers in this region are remarkably well educated, and the most demanded master's degree programs at South Dakota State university are in agriculture. It can also be among the most lucrative of careers, as successful farmers out here can be quite wealthy indeed. With this farm land now assessed at $7,000 per acre, you can imagine what 1,000 tillable acres is worth. Here, though, that gap between the haves and have-nots is enormous. These counties of Minnesota and South Dakota are among the very poorest, per capita, of any in these states. A lot of the family farms have collapsed because the sheer cost of running the places is so prohibitive. But a few people of great wealth thrive, provided they are landholders of substance.

Last night, I met a local entrepeneur who owns a feel of 40 huge, industrial-grade wheat harvesting machines (combines) that he sends out from late March to late November, to work the big fields all the way from northern Texas to Canada. An entirely different form of migrant farm worker. Each of the combines comes with a huge semi-trailer truck to transport it, and each of combine/semi teams comes with the nifty price tag of $600,000. And he owns 40 of them.

After the TV show announces that the "weed of the week" is leafy spurge, a new Christian program starts, this one a ventiloquist who uses a hideous stuffed doll to tell Bible stories to kids. Quite horrifying, but it seems quite ordinary in this culture.

My Dad nods off to sleep now and then, and finally I shut of the TV and simply enjoy the sunny day outside the picture window.  There are literally hundreds of birds at the feeder, meadowlarks, and
Baltimore orioles, and new bird I've not seen before—an orchard oriole. Some things never change: when I was a child, my dad was a dedicated bird-watcher, and in his declining years, it's the one pastime that he can still enjoy in comfort. His other passions were golf and gardening, but both are long since impossible.

In the distance, big electricity-generating wind turbines peek over the prairie horizon. These
carbon-fiber turbines, with blades 50 or 60 feet long, are state of the art, and the farmers who lease the land on which they're built can earn  $100,000 per year or more in royalties. One of the many advantage of land ownership out here.

On the way out here from Minneapolis, I drove right through one forest of these towers. At the end of the driveway, the farmer owning this high-tech grove of carbon fiber monsters had posted a bill-board with 10 directions for living. The top bullet point says, in letters 2 feet high:  "I am the Lord your God. Ye shall have no other gods before me."

This kind of collision of primitive and modern in Rural American is so common that there's not even any sense of irony when you see it.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Citizens of 4F: June 4, 2013

Now that the spring has finally come to Minneapolis, new characters have reemerged on the early hours of morning in downtown. I sometimes see them on those mornings where I go to the office very early.

On mornings when I exit the 4F bus near my office shortly after dawn, they rise ghost- like from the freight track canyon that runs into the east side of downtown from the north and south. Sometimes it is literally up from the mists they rise, one, two or sometimes three purposeful, mysterious human figures. Where these wanderers are going is unclear, though logical destinations might be the either the downtown bus depot  or perhaps the industrial area that blankets the gritty midway zone between Minneapolis and St. Paul. The midway district is where other freight train highways come in and out of the metro area.

It's not exactly fair to think of them as hobos or tramps, because they look a little more like modern cowboys, with their jeans and boots and stetson hats. But it's clear they carry all their worldly belongings in expensive but well-worn backpacks as they drift across the countryside. They are indeed homeless, but homeless in a much different way than the unfortunate, often mentally-ill beggers you see more frequently on  city streets everywhere.

These modern nomads are simply dressed but manage to stay relatively clean and neat in appearance, and the odor you catch as you pass them on the street isn't unpleasant at all: they smell like the prairie, like the desert, like the alfalfa fields. They carry the atmosphere of wherever they've just come from. And unlike the unfortunate street beggars, who don't really look at you at all unless they're actively pleading for coins, these fellows have a slightly jaunty, fearless air about them. They stride the streets with shoulders back and wide, and they will meet your glance willingly.

It seems unfair to even think of them as drifters, as there is nothing shiftless about the purposeful pace with which they march across the city in the early mornings. I always imagine that they are migrating across the land following seasonal work patterns, but I don't know for sure. Some may be headed for work up for that recent mecca—the new oil-field bonanza in North Dakota. By 7:00 am, they will have vanished; like rare birds, they are visible only in the early hours.

One morning as I turn the corner for the final leg up First Avenue to my office in the Wyman Building, one of these fellows tips his Stetson in greeting as he passes me on the street. "'Ello there, friend," he says to me in a slightly sing-song voice . "Isn't it just a fine morning, then?" There is no trace of irony. He's indeed simply pleased to be roaming on foot on a fine early June morning, happy to be just about as free as is humanly possible.

It's the Scottish brogue that causes me to pause a few steps later and look back at him as he pauses at
the intersection. He's waiting for the green light in order to cross the street legally, even though there is nary a vehicle to be seen at that hour.  How, I wonder, did this fellow make his way from a distant British nation to our city?

In my mind's ear, I've been giving them all the drawl of the American Southwest. But the fact that all along I've been imagining this incorrectly makes the world seem all the richer, somehow. Fiction just isn't nearly as fine as a full experience of the here and now.