Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

So Happy Together...

Around Christmas time, it's common for our now grown kids to hover around the house in the evenings. I'm one of those fellows who retires for the evening very early, and it's common for me to head for the bedroom when my son, his girlfriend, their dog, my college-aged daughter and one or two of her friends, and my wife to all be watching a video movie together in the family room while I head off for bed.

I do this with some deliberateness, as there is nothing so happy-making for me as the sensation of laying quietly in bed and listening to the happy chatter of this family of mine off in a nearby room. It gives me the sensation of having created something of value that now nurtures me. And it provides with a sense of connectedness that is not all that common for me.

I am by nature a pretty introverted person, a quality that probably arose in me originally out of a need to protect myself from people who could be angry and cruel. It's rather ingrained in me, and to this day I never feel quite so free as when I'm entirely alone and don't have to worry about other people needing me or being critical in some way. 

But that protective measure, though it may prevent some measure of unhappiness, also compromises my happiness, because it's quite clear that being connected to other people is crucial to the human experience of happiness. Though I often very much want to be alone, I would be quite miserable if I ever truly got my wish. 

But what a delightful thing to lay in bed with a satisfied fatigue, knowing that the shelter I've provided offers a place for my family to enjoy themselves and their friends together. The happiness I know as I fall asleep is the happiness of connectedness. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Hard to be a Saint in the City

The world of serious vice in downtown Minneapolis contains itself, with great self-discipline, to five blocks of Hennepin Avenue from about Second street on the north side, to Seventh on the south.  During the working day, this little neighborhood neatly represents a niche between much different worlds.

A block to the west are most of the night-time music clubs, which draw in hundreds of young adults from the suburbs, looking to escape their ticky-tack world for something real. (One of our suburbs is actually called "Eden Prairie;" no wonder they're eager to eat from the tree of knowledge.)  These well-to-do child tourists might drink at the clubs, but for more serious criminal activity late at night, they'll move a over to Hennepin, if they dare.

A single block to the east from Hennepin is the ever so genteel Nicollet mall, which overwhelmingly caters to the busy folks wearing suits and business skirts. It is the world of Macy's and Nieman Marcus. The folks who shop here will do almost anything to avoid Hennepin, just steps away. Some business men, though, do slink over here later at night.

Hennepin, though, belongs to the fringe citizens of downtown, not the business and department store crowds. Though fairly civilized in the daytime, it's here that most of the gritty downtown action occurs later on at night. It's for this reason that the downtown police precinct office is located just a block away, because if there is a shooting or a major drug deal or a hooker related stabbing, it will most likely be near Hennepin sometime after 2:00 am.

It also is the major thoroughfare for the metro bus lines during the day.On days when I work late and catch a southbound bus at 6:00 or later, Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis is well along its transformation from a center for commerce to a center for the vices. You are starting to get a hint at what the avenue will look like later in the evening.

The indigenous Hennepin folks do wander about the rest of downtown during the workday, but you think of them differently when you pass them while walking at lunch. Then, you might see an occasional homeless person. Or, a fetchingly attractive young woman in jeans and carefully done hair, who you might guess is an exotic dancer. Not often, but occasionally, you might see a "lady of the evening" making her daylight errands. Unlike the exotic dancers, many of whom look like slightly needy college girls who stayed up too late the night before, the hard-core working girls wear their high heels and lots of makeup and a much harder facial expression all day long, even when running errands to Target. You will also see down-on-their-luck people, crack heads and schizophrenics pan-handling with cardboard signs printed with misspelled pleas for help in sharpie markers stolen from Target. One fellow is at least honest: "Need money for a beer," his sign says.

At six o'clock the tide begins to turn, though, as the workers head for home in the outer neighborhoods or the suburbs, and the street folks head back for Hennepin proper to reclaim their positions. By 7:00, the downtown bars have propped their doors open and the sidewalk smoking lounges are beginning to fill. The strip clubs are beginning to blare music, and sidewalk hawkers are beginning to loosen up and talk to the beat cops beginning to stroll. A few folks are beginning to enter the bars after work.

Though gritty, it is not a particularly dangerous world—at least not yet. In fact, this world has its own strange charm, for the neon signs remind you of old time Las Vegas or Atlantic City, and the tone is pretty much one of tolerance for all human frailties. Custodians sometimes hose off the streets before the night crowds assembled, and the wet concrete reflects the neon light in expressionistic murals. The late office workers at the bus stops mingle easily with drug pushers and hookers, because we all recognize one one another and no one is afraid. In the early evening, the streets still belong to both worlds, and I rather imagine the street people are quite happy to be seen as they truly are: hookers and pushers and strippers and cripples and hustlers and drunks.

At the bus stop one night, a hooker sauntered up to a beat cop leaning up against brick wall of Augie's nightclub . "Hey, Bobby," she said to the cop, clearly an long-time acquaintance. "Are the Republicans back in town, or what?" she said. "Look at all the fuckin' bankers still downtown at 7:00 on a Monday night."

She was talking about the rest of us, waiting for the bus to take us out of downtown. To the downtowners, we're all "bankers."

Friday, October 25, 2013

Einstein and Other Cool Geezers

—this essay offered by Mercurious, with no warranties that it represents views of the other Geezers, either here or anywhere —

Most rational and reasonable people today would agree that the universe operates on laws and principles of logical cause and effect. This means that whatever the current state of a phenomenon happens to be in this moment, it can only be the natural result of events that came before it, and will in turn be a natural cause of an outcome yet to come. Whatever the current situation is, it came about because of the interaction of various phenomena that came before. We generally agree that we don't live in a magical universe, but one that ultimately makes sense if we only knew enough. Every result has causes.

Every moment is a perfect one, in other words, when you consider that this moment can only be the perfectly logical outcome of preceding events. And the history of human cultural and intellectual discovery seems to bear this out: phenomena that we once once found utterly mysterious are gradually shown to have logical explanations. That's the steady progression of human understanding. Nobody thinks the Northern Lights are messages from the gods anymore; we now know it's the effect that occurs when charged particles from the sun hits gaseous molecules in the atmosphere. Note, though, that this doesn't make the Aurora any less magnificent; I, for one, prefer knowing the truth to fearing I'm seeing an evil omen from the gods.

But despite knowing in our heart of hearts that this moment right in front of us is absolutely perfect because its the natural effect of causes, it very often doesn't feel perfect at all. More often than not (and certainly more often than we like to admit), we harbor a vague dissatisfaction, if not outright unhappiness, with the human condition. We suffer, in other words, unable to dwell in the inherent perfection of all things, restlessly "pursuing happiness" that really ought to be self-evident and already present given the logic of natural cause. Even though "right now" is the only logical way things can be, we very often, and absurdly, fume against it. We tend to think if we don't like a situation, it's a wrong situation. In reality, it's the absolutely perfect result of causes.  It's our view point that must be imperfect.

Intuitively, we know that the reason we don't  recognize and dwell permanently in this inherent perfection is because we simply don't understand, because our knowledge is incomplete. The history of human culture can be read in this way: the ongoing attempt to uncover the self-existent truth that will set us free. Whether our method for this is science, or government, or art, or religious mysticism, in the final measure all cultural endeavors really seem to have this as the goal: to make sense of things in a way that free us from this dissatisfaction inherent in the human condition. Artists do it through extensive articulation of the human state, statesman do it through social structure, science does it through linear reason, mysticism does it through inner transcendence. But they all have the same goal: pursuing happiness through understanding.

Note, too, that the different disciplines may come to exactly the same conclusions, just in different ways. Ancient Buddhist mystics understood something about the fluid nature of solid matter well before physicists learned that matter wasn't solid at all, but comprised mostly of empty space that was ever-shifting. Musical artists understood harmonics long before engineers found a way to measure sound waves.

Knowing less about science and government, I'll  turn for a moment to the transcendent strategy for perceiving reality, and specifically to the variety of meditative techniques found in the various religious and mystical traditions. Whether you are a Christian speaking of "meditative prayer" or a new age proponent seeking "travel on the astral plane," just about any spiritual tradition you can point to has among its teachings some techniques for turning inward with the aim of brushing aside the veils that hide the truth. It's no different, really, from what science tries to do with its extraverted form of the quest, or what art tries to do through articulating the various aspects of human experience. They all are trying to see the truth, and thereby happily and permanently recognize the inherent perfection of the universe.

On a purely amateur but fairly serious level, I've studied a great many of these techniques, from Christian to Shamanistic, from native American to forest Buddhism; and I've practiced several techniques at various times. Eventually, I found the most affinity in some of the more esoteric Buddhist meditative practices. These techniques, for all their esoteric nature, are far less alien than the more well known yoga practices where closed eyes, special postures, and controlled breathing techniques are taught. In much of Buddhist meditation, on the contrary, there is no special breathing technique, no closed eyes required, and no special posture other than to sit quietly. Buddhist mediation, in fact, looks pretty Western.

The thrust in the more mystical Buddhist traditions is that there is nothing to accomplish at all, no technique to perfect, no goal to achieve. Meditation is an exercise in just making friends with yourself, whatever that might look like at the moment, accepting inner and outer conditions without judgement or striving. "All things as they are," is the philosophic attitude of this kind of meditation; or alternately "This, too." If there's any effort involved, it's the effort of subtraction, or relinquishment and release of the restless efforts that have been hindering your peace of mind all along. In fact, try too hard, and you'll lose the equanimity you glimpse during those sporadic moments of complete abandonment and surrender.

Practice this way routinely, and certain truths begin to peek at you, especially after you've enjoy a few weeks or months of relaxed practice.  Solid matter does, in fact, start to feel and even look soft and malleable. And "difficult" situations no longer feel like problems, but just entirely workable circumstances with their own collection of materials with which to shape new temporary realities. You become aware that inner mind states, including harsh emotional ones, are entirely without concrete reality; and since mind states are the most ephemeral of conditions, they such don't need to occupy us or command our attention. Best of all, that meditative attitude starts to infiltrate everyday life, so that the same, slightly bemused attitude you experience during meditation now becomes your outlook more and more often.
Four cools cats. Though they never met, Einstein,
Yo-Yo Ma, Lincoln, and Kalu Rinpoche
would have really dug one another. 

I'd be utterly disingenuous to suggest that I'm some sort of master of this philosophy. In many ways, I'm still wound way, way too tight, even though the springs are much more relaxed these days than in my florid youth. At best, I get glimpses of this new state occasionally, though the glimpses are vivid enough to know that it's a direction worth heading toward. I am distinctly the happier for moving a wee bit following this compass heading, and it seems to be the course I'm supposed to travel.

And I'd by no means suggest this is what everyone needs to do. One of the great things about this philosophy, in fact, is that it doesn't try to prescribe a method for any one else, but just suggests that you to pay attention to what genuinely works for you and do more of it and less of the other. And it's absolutely true that devotees of science, of art, of statesmanship, can also reach the same glimpse of truth. It's telling, for example, that the many "out there" theoretical physicists wind up talking and teaching in a manner that most closely resembles ancient mystics. It's less about the path you take, I think, than it is about the place you want to arrive. All the guys shown above would certainly agree with another pretty cool cat, a scholarly anthropologist named Joseph Campbell, who advised us to "follow your bliss."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

10 Fine Nonfiction Books

In recent years, my addictive reading habits have shifted from fiction to non. This is partly because modern fiction is so wrapped up in its own style pretensions that it no longer really tells stories. With rare exception (the novels of Jeffrey Eugenides come to mind), most novels stop surprising you about half way through. So the last decade or so has had me reading much more fine non-fiction, which is actually considerably better these days than ever before. So here are ten great choices for the readers among you.

The criteria for making my list are these:  First, they are by authors who are not one-hit wonders—if you like this recommendation, you can safely grab other books they've written and be equally entertained. Second, these are works of non-fiction that actually tell stories and draw fine characterizations, the way novels once did. And finally, this list includes mostly books written over the last 10 years or so, and therefore leaves out classics such as the works of Thoreau, Mark Twain, Muir, or even John McPhee or Edward Abbey, the latter two who are among by favorites but have now entered "classic" designation in my eye. So I've limited this list to a list of more or less current good books.

In no particular order:

All Over But the Shoutin'.  Rick Bragg is a former Pulitzer Prize winning feature article writer for the New York Times. This book on life growing up poor in the deep south is one of the most moving things you'll ever read. Bragg's voice is melodic and precise,  and fearlessly self-revealing. Technically a memoir, but really a cultural study of life for dirt-poor white people in the southern U.S.

The Forever War, by Dexter Filbins. Filbins is another Pulitzer Prizewinner, a war correspondent for the New York Times. This collection of feature articles chronicles the gulf wars over the last two decades through heart-wrenching stories of the soldiers and civilians affected by it. Impossible to describe just how well written these pieces are. Few books have moved me this much.

Blind Descent, by James Tabor.  This is the story of two world-class caving teams, simultaneously trying to find the deepest spot on earth in caverns located thousands of miles apart. The tales of how deep-cave explorers do their thing is more suspenseful than the best crime novel. If you have even a hint of claustrophobia, this book will make it hard to sleep.

Spillover, by David Quammen. Normally known for his short essays on subjects of natural history, this is Quammen's full length detective story on how deadly infectious diseases throughout the world are investigated and defeated. You'll not think the same about bats after reading this. The finest book of this genre I know.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson.  Anyone familiar with Bryson's comic travel writing will be surprised and delighted by this easily accessible introduction to the wonders of everyday science. Written not for the science buff but for everyday folks. Who knew just how eccentric Issaac Newton really was?

Fly by Wire.  It's tough to pick just one book by William Langewische (American Ground is another obvious choice).  This book is the tale of the Airbus splash-landing in the Hudson River a couple of years ago, telling the story not only of the pilot, Capt. Sullenberger and his crew, but also the story of the entire airline industry and the politics and workings of the air safety program. Fascinating read, but best not to dive into it just before your next business trip, unless you're positive to be flying on an Airbus.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand.  Yes, I know this is old news, as the book's been on the best-seller lists for years now.  But yes, it's every bit as good as that. The epic real-life adventure of Louis Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent turned world class runner turned POW turned spiritual convert. Here's the rare book that really deserves its run on the NYTimes best-seller lists.

Stiff, by Mary Roach.  Somewhat like Bill Bryson, Mary Roach writes light-hearted, funny but well researched presentations of various scientific subjects. In this one, the subject is death, or more precisely, corpses. Delightfully gruesome but fascinating. Also read Mary's other one-word books:  Gulp, Boink, Spook, and also Packing for Mars. Equally great books, each of which can be read in a couple of sittings.

Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas. The subtitle of the book tells it all:  From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make This Country Work. Imagine a smaller, more up-to-date version of Stud Terkel's Working, and you get some idea of what's at work here. In-depth interviews and profiles of folks who work at mundane and sometimes unpleasant jobs that are utterly necessary to the working of the economy.

Homicide, by David Simon.  TV buffs among you might recognize David Simon as the creative force behind the HBO series, The Wire.  Homicide is an early book by Simon, the accounting of a year spent following a homicide unit in a notorious Baltimore precinct. Will eventually be seen as a classic.

An honorable mention:  The Unwinding, by George Packer.  This analysis of the recent collapse of the banking/finance sector of the American economy is on the short list for winning this year's National Book Award for non-fiction. Could well make my next 10-best list.

Monday, October 14, 2013

"The Boss is a Geezer"

Somewhere along the line, I became "establishment."

Inevitable, I suppose, since I'm now approaching 58 years of age, that eventually I would come to represent mainstream values and mores within the larger culture. Though I still often think of myself as representing social rebellion, this of course can't be the case from the perspective of current young adults, whose ranks I left quite awhile ago. Still, directly confronting the fact that I'm now part of the ancestral generation  has come in fits and spurts. I got a glimmer of it some years ago when realizing that my soon-to-be fully grown kids were now sharing secret jokes at the expense of their parents.  But that actually made me smile a little; I enjoyed the idea of them sharing a reality that excluded the responsible adult world, much the way we did during the 1970s.

And I remember getting another strong whiff of it on the commuter bus once, where a young woman, recognizing my middle-aged weariness, tried to give up her seat to assist my aching knees.

On Friday when I came back from a late lunchtime walk and passed through the lunchroom about 1:30,  the young 20-something office workers all fell silent and looked at each other a little nervously.  Their jovial lunchtime banter ceased for just a little while.  I am now, you see, the cat who ensures that the mice don't play too much during working hours. And it's true that I sometimes do a "bed check" both at the start of the day and the end to see who is being diligent and who is slacking off.  I smiled in amusement at their discomfort, and walked on. And I wondered if they had any clue about what I was really thinking that day, which wasn't concern for their productivity at all.

"What the hell is wrong with these kids today?" I thought to myself. "Why in the world is nobody calling in sick on a beautiful sunny Friday in October, when there's no deadline of any kind?"

Perhaps better not to let them into my head, though.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Glimpses of France

Here are three glimpses from our recent vacation to France: one in the river valley across from our hotel on the Dordogne river in the south of France; one from Monet's garden in Giverny; the last American cemetery overlooking Omaha beach on the Normandy coast.

I must say that we experienced none of the reputed French arrogance when it comes to English-speaking visitors.  We found everyone incredibly friendly and helpful, and at no time did we experience any of the snootiness we'd heard was endemic to France. A delightful trip in every way.

On an early morning walk from the hotel, this was the scene we 
spotted across the road (above). This is the Dordogne region, famed
 for the prehistoric cave art, including Lascaux, which we visited. 

Monet's garden in Giverny, still 
spectacular even at the end of the 
summer bloom

The American cemetery memorial above Omaha Beach. An extremely moving site. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Devil is in the Mirror, Antonin

In a recent interview, one of our Federal Supreme Court Justices, Anonin Scalia, acknowledged that he believed in the devil. Or should I say Devil, as a proper noun.

Not symbolically, as in a belief in the presence of evil in the world. Not figuratively, as an acknowledgement that we all from time to time behave in ways that later make us ashamed. His belief is as literal is it possibly could be. He believes, heart and soul, in a material, human-like creature with tangible, physical presence who leads the forces of evil. The Prince of Darkness. The Ayatollah of Evil. The Quarterback of Creepiness.  A devil that deserves a personal pronoun, as in "He is actively engaged in getting people not to believe in him or in God."

This is, mind you, one of the nine highly educated individuals who interpret the law of the land for the most powerful nation on earth.

James Garner as Jim Rockford.....Oh wait, no. This is our Justice,
Antonin Scalia, as he recognizes the Devil about to argue
before him in court.
Sigh.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Scalia is correct, I'm sure, when he says that 70% of Americans actually believe in a physical flesh-and-sulfur devil complete with horns and pitchfork. But I still can't quite get my ahead around the idea that at my recent recent department meeting of 10 souls, 7 of them actually subscribe to the literal reality of this mythology. According to these stats, 70% of us are actively concerned with resisting the wiles of a real character; they worry about the King Demon's personal hatred for them.

Now, I wouldn't argue that Evil doesn't exist in the world. It's as real a force as the life-affirming strain of energy we call Good. It can and should be discussed at length by serious people.  And there's really nothing wrong with enjoying a fairy tale of assigning mythological figures to represent these principles. A version of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. But a fully literal belief in the symbols themselves, rather than the principles they represent, is another matter entirely. Further, it seems to me that pinning the source of evil on a Devil is a way to shirk personal responsibility for it. In the background, I can hear Flip Wilson's line,  "The Devil made me do it."
"Pull my finger, Satan!"

Joseph Campbell once wrote that primitive man was (and is) more in touch with the spiritual side of existence, not because he believes literally in the presence of his dead ancestors in the totem spirits of trees and rocks, but precisely because he knows these things aren't literally true but chooses the playful path of seriously pretending. Campbell argues, persuasively, that it is the spirit of playfulness, of imagination, that's actually crucial to a genuinely spiritual life. Modern religious dogma, he'd argue, in its insistence on an completely illogical but literal subscription to these imaginary creatures, actually kills the soul. "Live and practice the 'what if'" is ultimately Campbell's prescription for fulfillment. Campbell says nothing about the value of checking your brain and common sense at the door.

Insisting on the literal and rejecting the symbolic is a sure-fired way to kill the magic in life. Follow Scalia's court participation for awhile, and you're quite aware that the man enjoys no magic whatsoever.

Makes me want to pray for his soul.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Whiff of Autumn

An hour-long lunchtime walk around downtown Minneapolis offers a diverse sensory experience at any time, but at no time more than in October, when the swirling winds of autumn provide an exceptionally rich experience for the olfactory nerves.  Entirely blindfolded, from scent alone, a complete picture of Minneapolis emerges during an autumn lunchtime walk on a nice day in downtown.

A faint whiff of sewer gas. Minneapolis is an older city than many outsiders imagine, with elements of its infrastructure dating back almost 150 years. The cavernous storm drains often give you whiffs of fumes from deep in their depths when you pass by the curbside drain opening in front of my office building. A mysterious smell, slightly dangerous in bouquet. 

Cigarette smoke and liquor, with a side order of cheap music. My walk takes me by the front door of a so-called "gentleman's club" on the way to nicer environs, and even this early in the day, seedy patrons of the strip club are on the sidewalk smoking and spilling beer on the sidewalk. Time was when Minneapolis was a kind of overgrown small town, but now it's really just a small version of a very large city, with all the virtues and vices of a New York or LA or Houston. In those cities, though, I doubt that a lunchtime walk can bring you from a strip club to a park where wild deer graze. 

High-end perfume. I can't identify the name of this popular fragrance sometimes worn by business women I pass by on the Nicollet mall, but it must be expensive to match the stylish clothes and expensive shoes they wear as they scurry to and from lunch meetings. At least once a week, I recognize this scent somewhere in downtown. Today, it's on the corner of Nicollet and Fourth Street.  

Reefer. Ironically, the smell of pot is often detected at the bus stop just half a block from the first precinct police station. Minneapolis rivals Denver or Boulder Colorado in liberal attitudes, and pot smokers are rarely arrested or ticketed here. This is no Des Moines or Oklahoma City where personal vice is heavily policed. Minneapolis bears more commonality with San Francisco in terms of urban mood. 

Coffee shops (several).  Would you be surprised to know that Starbucks, Caribou and Dunn brothers have distinctly different smells to them?  I pass by at least one of each on my noon walk, and could identify them with my eyes closed. 

Indian food (curry) with just a hint of diesel. Again contrary to outside knowledge, Minneapolis is rather cosmopolitan, with a pretty diverse range of ethnic eateries. This odor happens to originate with a sidewalk food truck, its generator putting a faint whiff of diesel in the air alongside the predominant smell of curried chicken. In other locations on my walk the food smells are more mysterious: a lot of Minneapolis restaurants are hidden up at the skyway level above the streets, and you often get a whiff of something delicious while being unable to spot any street-level entrance to the restaurant producing the fragrance. 

Dead, decaying fish, distantly. Sounds unpleasant, but it's merely unexpected, really, a smell that would be entirely common in waterfront Boston or Baltimore, but which here in the midwest is at first surprising. Here, I happen to be passing by remnants of an old riverside flour mill, now converted to a cultural museum, as I make my way to the historic stone arch bridge leading to the north side of the Mississippi River. A high-pitched but faint roar comes out of the limestone bluff below the mill—it's what remains of the spillway that once diverted water from the main river stream into the channel that drove the massive turbines inside the factory. The waters still flow, though the mill has long since been shut down. In the pond below the spillway, a few decaying fish are floating; this is the faint earthy smell I am detecting.  

Malty odor of wheat flour. As I start across the great arched bridge spanning the Mississippi in downtown, I swear I get whiffs of the ghostly smell of malt, the scent of wheat ground into flour. A few of these mills lining both sides of the river near St. Anthony falls, belonging to Pillsbury and General Mills, were still active until 40 years ago, or so, and sometimes the breezes can still give you hints of the lifeblood of those factories. Some of the mills are today converted into retail and residential space, and it's well known among the new tenants that the smell of ground wheat permeates these buildings even now. 

Marine smells, waves and water. Midway across the stone arch bridge that once carried Burlington Northern train cars hauling wheat to the flour mills on the river banks,  I detect a different aquatic smell, a lighter cleaner smell of frothing water. No surprise: 100 yards to the west, where the Mississippi begins a descent that totals about 150 feet, is St. Anthony Falls. This vertical drop in the great Mississippi River is what first caused aboriginal North Americans to pitch tents and villages here (a mystical spot to them); it's what caused early fur trappers to camp here as they portaged their way around the falls as they traveled north and south; and it's what eventually caused lumber and wheat mills to spring up to make use of water descending under the force of gravity to power factories. In short, these falls are responsible for Minneapolis itself existing exactly where it does. What I smell here is the oxygenated water pounding over the spillway onto rocks below, particularly pungent today due the high water level this October. 

Sweat from laborers. At several points along my walk, I come across various workers taking their lunchtime break on park benches along the water front. Construction workers and city road crews and a variety of other working men, emitting the sweaty smell of muscular labor. Minneapolis is in a development boom again, and its evident in the sheer number of laborers seen everywhere.  They remind me of many of the people I knew (and smelled) as a boy—farmers and their hired help, including my grandfather; the smell common in the farming families of my boyhood friends. It's the entirely pleasant smell of people who sweat for their living. 

Dry leaves and vegetation.  It's the smell of the deep woods in autumn, but with discordant sound of the city accompanying it. The banks of the Mississippi in downtown are blessedly lined with trees and woods, some of it heavy enough to shelter fox, raccoons, deer. It's an unusual downtown environment for a recognizably urban city. The smell of woodlands in autumn is the smell of vegetative death, really, though it's not a depressing odor at all. Mostly it hints at the start of the fecund cycle that will soon enough flow through winter dormancy and emerge on the other side in the eruption of life again in April. In the smell of death, there's the hint of new life. 

Sweat from athletes, mixed with sunscreen. Along the lunchtime streets of Minneapolis—which is well known as a health and fitness mecca—you frequently smell the odor of athletic sweat. Joggers, runners, skateboarders, roller-bladers, bicyclists—all manner of lunchtime athlete can be seen (and smelled) on a lunchtime walk. This is the smell of people who sweat through recreational choice, a different thing entirely from sweat broken through labor. 

Arriving back at the office, I pass by the burping storm drain once again, and take a deep pleasurable breath of the slightly noxious oder while looking at the front door—where an afternoon spent in front of computers and notepads awaits me....offering no entertaining odors at all....

.....unless I just keep walking. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Modern Tom Sawyer

I'm sure they boy described below falls under the category of "troubled" youngster, and if I knew the whole story I'd be quite sympathetic with the plight of the family. Still, I can't quite help having admiration for the ingenuity, even brilliance, of this youngster's brand of juvenile delinquency....

Last week, a nine-year-old boy in Minneapolis snuck onto a Delta jet bound for Las Vegas. At first I assumed this was some sort of innocent but startling mixup—that he was traveling with his family, who was waiting to board a plane at an adjoining gate, accidentally boarded another plane, or some such thing.

But it turns out that this was quite a clever and well planned ploy on the boy's part. His mother works at the airport, and it would appear that he sometimes accompanies her to work. A day or two before the event, airport cameras recorded him "casing" the situation at the baggage carousel and security gate. Then, on the day in question, he quietly joined the rear of a large family at the security checkpoint and a different family at the boarding gate. In the confusion of a family elder presenting a whole handful of boarding passes to the agent in each location, he managed to sneak through. After all, the difference between 8 kids and 9 is negligible to the typical adult. It wasn't until he was on the plane in the air when the flight attendant realized he was both unattended and not on the flight manifest.

And mind you, this kid is old beyond his years: his chosen destination was not Disney World, but Vegas.

When the lad was eventually returned to Minneapolis, local authorities looking into the situation found that he has a history of this kind of misbehavior in Minneapolis, often jumping the light-rail train line to travel down to a water park near the Mall of America, where he sneakily joins large family and slips through the entrance lines there. He is, to say the least, a behavioral challenge.

Now, as a youth I had something of a reputation for being both clever and prone to notable hijinks. But at the same time I extend sympathy to his family for what they must go through, I must  tip my cap to the sheer precociousness of this young fellow. Intellectual brilliance and diabolical cunning is a hard mixture to beat.  If he gets through his delinquency years and stays out of prison, I'm confident that he has a future in the US Congress.

You can read the entire story here. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Reflections On the Shutdown

I'm trying to stay detached while watching the political drama between House republicans and Senate democrats, though I'll forewarn you that my innate liberal bent often makes this difficult. But having spent my life in the media business, the PR drama is something to which I can bring a little more objectivity, I think. Among my observations:

• Initially, I thought it was quite brilliant of the right wing, a couple years ago, to label The Affordable Care Act "Obamacare."  It is much easier for the public to oppose a social program with a alien-sounding name than it is the feel-good phrase "affordable care."  When I researched this, I found that the term was cropping up in editorials way back in 2007, during the presidential election race. In any case, these journalists deserve a medal from the tea party group, since the phrase has made it much easier to galvanize opposition today.

However, this could come to haunt republicans, too, because recently even democrats have been using the phrase, and I now have the sense that if the program shows any early success at all, "Obamacare" could become similar to "Social Security" in the hearts and minds of citizens. 20 years from now, the phrase could offer echos of "New Deal" and be part of a fond legacy for Obama.... or could taint him like "teapot dome scandal" did for Warren Harding.   Just too early to tell.

• It was, I thought, similarly shrewd of republicans over the last few days to repeat in speeches "if Obama can negotiate with Iran and Syria, why can't he negotiate with us?"  Leaving aside for a moment the fact that what's proposed is really NOT a true negotiation, it was a shrewd PR move to enlist everyone who is conservative regarding foreign policy onto the anti-obamacare team.

If I were the democrat, though, I'd seize the opportunity and coin this phrase:  "American doesn't negotiate with terrorists, not even ones in Congress."

• In the media, I think the tide is moving in the direction of the democrats. This morning as the government shutdown dawned, I could find few newspaper editorials that didn't chastise the republicans in some way. USA Today (granted, not the newspaper of the highly educated, but normally maddeningly unwilling to take a strong stand) found in their survey that 69% of readers strongly blamed the republican house for the current mess. Other notably liberal newspapers predictably blamed republicans, but not even the Wall Street Journal could must muster much fierce anti-Obama sentiment on this one, publishing only a Peggy Noonan editorial that said it would be in Obama's interest to negotiate.

....some observations on how the health care exchanges looks to me.

Minnesota has been on the forefront of establishing a state-based health insurance exchange, and when I logged onto their web site this morning, the first day of enrollment, I found it far more developed than I had been led to believe—easy to navigate and quite easy to understand and use. Using my current work-sponsored health insurance program as a standard, I found that if I were to buy insurance on the exchange for myself, my wife, and daughter (age 24), the annual costs would be around $7,000 to 8,000 a year. (Plus, in likelihood, possibly another $2,000 or so in out of pocket). That's for "platinum" coverage, a fairly comprehensive coverage similar to what I enjoy at work. Considering that I have friends of a similar age who privately insure for costs up to $20,000 per year (premiums plus out-of-pocket max), from a purely selfish point of view, the new exchange program doesn't look too bad.

It doesn't even look bad compared to our work-sponsored insurance, since my own contribution to this (one-third of total) is about $5,000 per year.

The health insurance exchange, then, wouldn't make any sense for me in a situation where my employer pays two-thirds of my current cost. But considering that I might be able to buy pretty decent annual insurance coverage for less than $10,000 per year, it does mean that retiring at 60 or 62 is a distinct possibility, rather than slaving away until 65, as I might have to do without the program.  And this seems to me to be in the country's best interests: getting older workers out of the workforce to clear the way for employing youngsters.

Now, I'm not naive enough to not understand that there might be plenty of hidden costs here, not the least of which is the real concern that the program could add to the national debt, unless carefully managed and controlled.  That's the argument made by intelligent conservatives, and they can make it fairly persuasively, whenever they are not drowned out by tea party shrillness.

But on a basic PR level, my suspicion is that as many ordinary people see that the current program seems to offer more affordable health insurance, they'll seize upon the selfish benefit and not worry too much about the broader implications. How many consumers, for example, worry about larger ethical issues when buying cheap clothing at Walmart manufactured by slave children in Bangladesh?  We're a culture of "what's good for me," and gradually, I think, Obamacare will leave that impression for many people.

I'm not equating Obamacare with Walmart manufacturing ethics, by any means. There's just not enough evidence to know what the final outcome will be. But for once, anyway, I'm actually firmly behind the editorial I read this morning, which said "Fix Obamacare, don't eliminate it."

That's a debate we can and should be having.  Not the silliness currently underway.