Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Monday, December 30, 2013

Citizens of 4F, December 30, 2013

This was an unusual day for 3-year-old Frankie, a regular passenger on the morning north-bound 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis.

Frankie and his mother board the bus near the start of its run, in the inner ring suburb of Richfield, and so they are already seated when the bus reaches my stop, which is at the point where the bus just enters crosses the city boundary into  Minneapolis proper on its morning run into downtown. 

Today was different because Frankie was a happy child,  an unusual state of affairs for him. After many dozens of mornings watching him and his young mother, I've concluded that Frankie probably lives with one of the conditions commonly identified as being on the austism/asberger's spectrum. My wife, who worked in the public school system, tells me that it's now the standard theory that attention-deficit disorders also are related to this spectrum, so I'm assuming at the very least, Frankie suffers from a very severe case of attention deficit. 

On most days, his face wears a constant expression of troubled consternation, as though he lives in perpetual conflict with his own nature. Looking out the window of the bus offers him no more than a few seconds of focus, and neither can he be occupied with any of the books or games that his mother provides him on the bus ride. His squirming is constant, and it is rare that he is at peace for more than a few seconds at a time. He is really not disruptive to other passengers, but neither is his mother ever able to do anything but tend his constant needs. His little forehead is almost always furrowed in emotional discomfort.

His mother is very young—certainly no more than 20 or 21, and perhaps even younger, and it's to her credit that I've never seen her lose her temper with Frankie. She is so young that it's possible the Aladdin backpack she carries with Frankie is not her son's at all, but is an artifact of her own recent childhood. 

Today, though, Frankie is for the first time a bit more like other little boys. This morning is the exception that proves the rule.  Beneath his parka, he wears a tee-shirt that says "Hey Dude, Your Girlfriend Keeps Checking Me Out," Frankie sits on his mother's lap facing backwards toward me; I'm two rows behind them.  When Frankie catches my eye, he begins to play the familiar hide-and-seek game that's common to most kids.  He moves his head behind his mother, blocking his view of me, then pops his head back to see me once again.  As soon as my eyes shift back to meet his again, he breaks into a quietly delighted smile.  It pleases him enormously to see our shared recognition of one another. 

The game goes on for nearly 15 minutes—a period of focus virtually unheard of for Frankie. When Frankie and his mother get up to leave the bus at the Lake St. connection, she glances back and smiles at me.  It pleases her to see Frankie occasionally behave like a typical child; it may give her hope for his future. Frankie, too, smiles at me over his Mom's shoulder as they leave the bus, and I wonder if he will develop the skill to remember these occasional calm moments at those frequent times when his awareness again begins to vibrate out of control. 

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Civilized Conversation Begins to Degrade....

Interviewer:  "The wisdom of the Geezers is now something of a legend, and I'm wondering if the group of you can comment on a subject of interest to young men aiming toward Geezerhood some day. That subject is that of fathering children in the modern world. Your commentary frequently borders on the curmudgeonly in tone, so I suspect you have some things to say on the subject."

Mercurious:  "Bold, sometimes rabid opinions, really are the territory of the Professor, but you're right, this is one subject the Geezers can certainly comment on. 

"Personally, the first piece of advice I'd give young men setting out on the path of fatherhood—and the principle most often ignored these days—is this:  Be the adult. Your kids do not need you to be their friend. They need you to be the responsible adult to set their boundaries for them. Far too many namby-pamby men think that being a father means being a buddy. There will be time for that when they grow up, perhaps, but when they're kids, be a genuine adult father to your kids. Handing off to you, Professor."

The Professor:  "Insist that your children talk to you.  They don't have to like you, they don't even need to respect you (of course, that would be nice) but they need to know that talking to you is a "condition of employment" as far as being a kid.  This should be no problem; kids enjoy talking to their parents—when they are young.  The difficulty some parents have is caused by allowing an early pattern of distracted communication to develop, in which the parents are too busy to focus upon and talk with their children. This dysfunctional pattern often kicks in at the magical age of three, when (most) kids explode with language and are almost totally uninhibited about their spoken thoughts. Most three year olds have limited things to talk about, and most parents of three year olds are very busy, tired or, usually both.  It is easy to let a pattern develop of being together without truly talking.  (This is becoming VERY concerning in today's world, where kids—and parents—are equipped with distracting electronic devices all the time.)  

 "Not talking is a delayed-symptom type of thing: it is not much of a concern when kids are young and their lives are relatively simple, and for the most part played out in the view of parents and teachers. The challenge comes when the child reaches, say, middle school, where an age-appropriate impulse for independence starts to kick in, and social pressures become much more difficult to spot and control.  Woe to the parent who has teenagers who are not in the habit of talking with their parents (and I believe nearly the only thing that brings children through some of those tricky "middle years" are habits formed in earlier years when they were more malleable.)

"If the default social mode of the family is developed so that it is more strained, awkward and difficult for kids to sit with their parents in silence, then teenagers will talk; but if the habit is that silence is typical and comfortable, there is no way that a teenager suddenly becomes chatty during those typical teenage emotional states:  confusion, in-over-their-head anger or fearfulness, or debilitating, distracting horniness.

"Meals, of course, can be a big help in all of this.  Formerly, car rides were a big opportunity.  I myself tried to build in a bedtime ritual of having a ten-minute chat over a glass of juice or milk with the little ones before they went off to bed.  They had little to say, really, so usually we just went through their day, hour by hour, and I asked them what they did.  Value in terms of content? Usually close to zero.  Value in terms of establishing a lifelong pattern: (as they say in the adverts) Priceless." 

Mercurious: "I have to say, Professor, that the proof is clearly in the pudding. I've seen your interaction with your grown kids, and you've clearly done something pretty right. Yours is an admirable family dynamic, to be sure. What say you, Mr. Math?"

Mathematician:  "So the core of the advice from my esteemed colleagues seems to be "discipline" and "communication". I can't say we had either of those in abundance in my childhood. Not that my sisters and I were particularly mute or surly. But our evening meals were not the gabfests the Professor remembers. And as for discipline, well, my Dad didn't try hard to be my best friend but I honestly never remember him even raising his voice to me, or my sisters. And I may have been too much of a milk toast to warrant the occasional correction, but I guarantee my three sisters richly deserved the dressing downs they never received. 

"What we did have in my family that made things work was a strong sense of place, or traditions. One felt the need to do things a certain way because that's what we did. Work hard. Study hard. Don't complain. Respect your elders. Hold family dear. Perhaps because my maternal Grandmother lived with us and cared for us when we were very young, my siblings and I all shared that common worldview. When I go out to shoveel another frickin' Minnesota snow off my drively in the barely dawn, I can still her my Grandmother's voice: "A job worth doing is worth doing well. Sometimes I wish her advice had been more like, 'Have another. You can do that other shit tomorrow.'

"My wife and I have tried to imbue our kids with a sense of tradition. We have endlessly talked to them about the rich histories of my family and hers. The kind of stories and traditions that almost every family has. Either that worked or my kids are very good at hiding their transgressions. Not that they are exactly what I'd like them to be. But they have a good sense of who they are, backed by a good understanding of from whence they came. That's about all they really need, which is good because the next generation will likely grow up with considerably less than we had. But that's another topic.  For later. 

Mercurious: "Well said, Math.  The success of your strategies is also clear to anyone who simply looks at your family. In our family, we probably spent more effort on creating new traditions rather than following historical traditions, as some of those felt stifling and onerous. But I'm well aware that our kids have appreciated the life-rhythm reassurance offered by the repeated activities that became our own family traditions.

The Professor:  “Nicely observed, Mathematician, especially the observation about tradition. I REALLY struggle trying to understand those people who don't get how tradition works and who, thus, undervalue (or are sometimes actively antagonistic toward) tradition.
Interviewer: “Geezers, any further thoughts?  I know you to be immensely opinionated, so surely you have other advice...."

Mercurious:  One other thing. Let your kids be kids. Give them the free time and space to explore
the world and themselves and figure out who they are and what they want to be. When we Geezers were young, summers were largely a time to wander about rather aimlessly, playing sandlot baseball with buddies, hanging out at the municipal swimming pool, roaming hillsides or just generally getting into mischief. We most certain DID NOT have every moment of every day scheduled for us by our parents. And I think we turned out much the better for our parents having the good sense to let us be kids."

Interviewer:  "Thank you Geezers....

Mercurious:  "Wait a minute....

Dr. Golf:  “You said one other thing. Now you’re starting yet another thing.”

Mercurious:  “…On the subject of tradition... Tradition seems like a double-edged sword to me, capable of both good and ill. You can argue that tradition was also what prevented first women, then black people, from voting. Also what prevented gay people from having rights. And certainly there are some religious traditions that have been corrosive. Math, you of all people must roll your eyes at some of those traditions. If you adhere to tradition, then must you of necessity believe that change is bad? Tradition, after all, is partly about arch defense of the status quo. Where does "tradition" end, and lazy inertia begin? A complex subject, I think. Tradition is both a human necessity, and sometimes a human foible.

Interviewer...."Perhaps another time, we can explore that....

Professor: "Hold on, hold on. Mercurious doesn't get the last word this time.

"Of course tradition—like all powerful tools—has its down side along with its positive value. My basic concern is when people reject a tool such as this one on the basis of its misuse. 

"The Geezer in me is tempted to reject the Internet as a tool because of its misuse in the form of ugly anonymity detached pseudo-communication.  Our esteemed Mathematician has developed an aversion to most things religious—to what extent this is related to observing its dubious use in gloomy Lutheran settings growing up in Minnesota is a judgment I am not in a position to make.  

"To me the salient concern is: when you know a tool exists that can do what no other tool can, don't you think you should at least learn as much as you can about such a tool? 

"As a professor at reasonably selective college, I work with a lot of people possessing a fair amount
of "grey matter" intelligence.  It is doubly frustrating to encounter very intelligent people who opt out of a struggle to understand how something like tradition works based on the many negative things to which it contributes.  Ditto religion, ditto technology (for that matter, ditto following sports and being a sports fan.)  Learn about these tools, try applying them in a sophisticated manner, and determine their sensible place in (or out) of your lives.  It's the knee-jerk reaction by intelligent people that gives me pause."

Interviewer:  "Thank you for that final thought...."

Mercurious: "Listen carefully, Professor. I'm not rejecting the concept of tradition, only asking you to be more precise. You're the one that said tradition is always good, without qualification.  So who's being knee jerk?

Mathematician:  "There goes Mercurious, getting the last word again. Sheesh. Edit this, dip stick!" 

Dr.  Golf  (to Interviewer): "Welcome to my life. These pseudo-intellectual mutts never shut up."

Interviewer:  "Thank you, Geezers, one and all. And special thanks to Dr. Golf."

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Snow Sabbath

After a brief hiatus, during which time he has returned to his home in the United States, married off his eldest progeny, and endured caustic demands for creative output from the editor, the Professor returns to these pages to grace us with his wit and wisdom once again. 

One of the chief pleasures of being a Geezer is that you can cast negative judgment with almost complete impunity.  "What’s he complaining for," people with ask themselves, and then quickly and easily move on to an answer to their self-directed rhetorical question: “Because he is a old geezer, of course.”  But if a Geezer is to be true to his calling rather than merely playing a simple cliché version of an old Geezer, he must question himself even more rigorously than others do.  (Mostly because he views himself more seriously than others do.)  The true Geezer must look deeply into the great “whys” of existence, chief among them being the always important: “Why don’t I like this?”  

Today’s “why don’t I like this” is of seasonal significance: snow days. Specifically, why I don't like them.  (A "snow day," for the edification of our southern readers, is a term used in the northern climates to signify a day where routine social or civic activities are cancelled due the presence of heavy snowfall). 

As I turn on a morning news program here in the northeast U.S. and hear all of the closures due to snow, I cannot help but think
In our day, the kids were so hearty that we
even held ORGIES in the snow!
that this wholesale cancellation of activities due to mere snow has done got out of hand.  Part of my bemusement with this trend is due, I would think, to my upbringing in Minnesota. 

Minnesotans make little of a foot or two of snow, and Minnesota PAPER BOYS know there is no such thing as a snow day!  As a boy, the closest I recall to getting a "snow day" from the paper route was when our city manager/coordinator
As a paperboy, the Professor was a
joy to all he encountered. 
couldn't get up College hill to drop off my copies of the St Paul Pioneer Press for me to deliver.  Not to worry: he called nice and early at 5:30 a.m. to let me know that the papers could be found on the curb two blocks down the hill and were in a plastic bag so the still-falling snow wouldn't make them soggy before I got there to pick them up for subsequent delivery.  Snow cancellation?  Fat chance.

And my parents weren't really fans of the idea of snow cancellations either.  (I can't blame them: if I had eight kids running around a house with three bedrooms and one bath,  I would want to trundle them off to school—or ANY open building for that matter—that would take them for the day.)  I remember my own surprise one morning when the temperature was 35 degrees below zero and my mother opined that the nuns should consider a school cancellation because of cold. I articulated my surprise, given her history of skeptical attitude toward snow cancellation.  The logic of her reply made sense: "cold weather can kill you, but I can't remember anyone getting killed by deep snow (except your great-uncle Alphonse who shouldn't have decided to shovel both his and his neighbors snow in one go...he was just showing off)." Nonetheless, we were sent off to school that morning in the 35 below temps with the sensible advice to keep our tongues off of any and all iron pump handles.

And among the most irritating of all snow cancellations to a Geezer is the cancellations of CHURCH SERVICES.  What in God's name is the good of being a devout Christian if your pastor doesn't even have the confidence (in you, God, or both?) to conduct services, out of fear that members will come to ill trying to get to church.  

But underneath all of my inflated concern about the knee-jerk cancellation of everything in sight after merely the FORECAST of snow, there is a larger concern about what these cancellations say about society.  Today's fondness for the snow days is a symptom of a larger, more concerning development. Put briefly: people declare snow days because we are DESPERATE for snow days—we're desperate for any excuse at all to truly, actually give ourselves a BREAK (or should I say "brake?")  

For thousands of years, cultures have followed broadly-held rationales that allowed hard-working, driven people to take a break without thinking of themselves as slackers (to use today's terminology).  This was a variation of the "Sabbath" practice, where a day of idleness was usually (but not always) woven into religious observations.  The same impulse is what prompted numerous state-sanctioned  "blue laws" forbidding shopping and other commercial activities on designated days— laws that were in effect up to recent memory, but which are now gone everywhere.  

Our "go-go" scheduling leaves us with feeling that should  we knock off for an entire day  there must something wrong with our work ethic; and if a gap in our schedules does present itself, we immediately and nervously schedule some activity or another.  Children's activities—formerly exempt from weekends (or at minimum, from Sunday)—now seem to be mandated 7 days a week.  

Social history shows us that we need a regular break, both physically and emotionally; we need to change our regular pattern of doing and being; we need a sabbath, or at least the equivalent.  Why won't we give ourselves a break?  I wonder if it is because of an unconscious fear that we won't be able to hold ourselves up as paragons of industry when talking critically about others who are less fortunate and to whom we are so anxious to affix the label "lazy" because we don't want to provide adequate social support.  

For whatever reason, we are are desperate for a break, and when  an excuse like bad weather (or even the possibility of bad weather) presents itself, we seize the moment.  I guess it's better than having no break at all, but surely this isn't the way to nurture a sane, healthy culture. Lord knows we can't call it a "Sabbath" but can't we figure out a way to carve out some time for rejuvination?  The appalling encroachment of commerce into our most recent Thanksgiving is only the most recent evidence that we are not headed in the right direction. Could we not all just agree that on occasion it's all right to stop?   

Maybe that's why snow cancellations make me grumpy...after all, there must be SOME reason, mustn't there?

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Geezer Shame

'Tis the season for corporate bribes.

No, not real hard cash, which might be somewhat useful. In the publishing world where I exist, what gets exchanged this time of year is enormous boxes of candy, fruit baskets, monstrous collections of holiday cookies, cheeses, nuts, sausage, etc. etc., all deluging us from Asian printers, prepress color houses, paper manufacturers, copy machine vendors, design studios, the more prosperous freelancers....all the folks who trying to create just a little bit of good will that might sway us into given them our business in the upcoming year. As the publishing business has become unbelievably competitive in recent years, the quality of the bribery has also increased.

Sounds great, but alas, my willpower suffers when faced with mountains of fine chocolates and exotic cheeses heaped in the lunchroom from dawn to dusk. Each time I refill my coffee cup (which is often), there the temptation lies....

....there's only so much restraint a middle-aged guy should be expected to exercise. I'm not a lecherous old coot in the normal sense—pretty girls are entirely safe from me— but fine Swiss chocolate does have the power to create a certain kind of lust that leaves me occasionally powerless.

I'm hiding this lust from my wife.  I eat dinner dutifully each night, unable to confess that I've cheated on the evening meal just a few hours earlier, with an entire harem of beautiful candies perfumed with raspberry sea salt and wearing naughty lingerie of caramel under tight black dresses of rich chocolate.

I'm so ashamed.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Citizens of 4F, December 17, 2013

Sylvia is one of those people who is either blessed or cursed (depending on your view) by being born without the gene for social restraint.

Her work schedule often puts her both on the same inbound morning bus and the same outbound evening bus as me, and so I see a lot of Sylvia. She is a slightly round woman with longish hair, somewhere in her late 30s, wearing large round eyeglasses that would seem more appropriate on an older woman.  When I first started observing her, I thought that perhaps Sylvia had been riding for many, many years, since many people on the bus seemed to be close friends of hers. I quickly saw, though Sylvia is just one of those people who will tell anything and everything, to almost anyone, any time, any where. The people she talked to so openly weren't close friends at all. She just doesn't have any sense of social restraint at all when it comes to talking with strangers.

If you find yourself sitting next to Sylvia, usually it's only a matter of a moment or two until she turns in her seat, leans forward, and enters into a spirited, if somewhat one-sided, conversation with you.

It would be rather easy to simple label Sylvia as a sadly lonely woman who talks to bus people because she has no one else in the world to converse with. She seems more complicated than that, though, because judging from her conversation, it appears that her management job at the bank entails a fair amount of responsibility and routine interaction with others seems to be something she's good at.

Sylvia will describe every aspect of her life to the people around her on the bus, and she does so in a voice that carries pretty much throughout the vehicle. For several consecutive mornings recently, she described the office intrigue that went along with her yearly performance review at work. (She was not viewed positively by her supervisor, who dislikes single women, we're told.) Her principle audience for this conversation was the monkish Thomas, an elderly gentleman who very politely listened, nodded, even offered an occasional word of encouragement.

On another morning, a woman (and everybody else) was treated to a pretty detailed description of Sylvia's extended family, some of whom live in the area, others as far way as Seattle. She is particularly close to her half-brother; doesn't much care for her sister, even though she is a full sibling.

Not everybody listens politely. Some newcomers to the bus shift uncomfortably when Sylvia begins to talk directly to them, and a few even get up to change seats. For those who have been around a while, though, Sylvia no longer draws any attention. She is just one of the gang, although a little eccentric. We know lots and lots about her, even though we've never heard her actually give her name.

Much of the time, Sylvia just describes the minutia of her life in pretty exhaustive detail. Occasionally, however, a bit of philosophy falls out of the sky, apropos of nothing else that's been going on at all. This morning, Sylvia was unusually silent for most of the ride into downtown. It wasn't until the final passengers boarded the bus when only standing room remained, that Sylvia finally spoke, boldly:

"If you've decided to change yourself because of somebody else, it never works," she said to everyone on the bus. "The only reason to change if for yourself, and yourself alone."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

A Geezer at a Clean, Well-lighted Diner

I've recently become a little unnerved by the recognition that I favor favor restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other service establishments that are popular with the grey-haired demographic segment. In other words, I like to go to the same places that senior citizens like to go.

I resist the obvious implications of this.  I like to think of myself preferring quiet, sparsely populated establishments because deep down I'm have an Ernest Hemingway/Edward Hopper aesthetic—that I'm a kind of Nighthawks at a Clean, Well-Lighted Diner sort of person.

Yeah, that's it.

My kind of place. Except for me it would be "Pre-dawn Hawks at the Diner."
When it comes to the dark hours of the night, it means those just before dawn. 
Take restaurants and bars, for example. Over recent years, I've completely lost interest in the trendy places that come alive after 11:00 pm at night. They're now largely populated with silly children, and are so noisy that I can't even hear myself think.  And they are so dimly lit that you can't identify the food on your plate, or what kind of bug is floating in your Scotch. We went to one recently that was highly recommended (it had one of those ridiculous name like "The Sardine Tin" or "Becky's Dilemma")  and were surprised to find it virtually deserted at 9:00. Then at 10:30 as we we finishing dessert, the place exploded with music from a punk band and entry of a herd of manic young adults making so much noise I literally could not hear myself think. (This is why, I think, you see the kids all texting on their phones in these bars—they can't hear one another talk, anyway.)  As we left, the place had a waiting line 40 yards long waiting in subzero temps.  Two weeks later I drove by this restaurant to find it closed and out of business. Such is the nature of trendiness.

Yep. This is indeed the "Happy Perkins." 
One of my favorite casual eateries is s simple Perkins chain restaurant which a close friend has labeled "Happy Perkins". It's been at the corner of France Avenue and highway 494 for thirty years. We call it "happy" out of deference to the rather goofy Scandinavian theme of its furnishings and decorations, and the bobble-headed cheerfulness of its staff. The place is clean, well-lit, with carpeting and window drapes that absorb sound and make it possible to converse quietly. And it's not so busy that you feel the pressure of waiting customers eying you with hostility for your table. Who cares that the average client at Happy Perkins has personal memories of D-day. My family is appalled by the fact that this is where I often choose to go on celebratory days like birthdays and Father's Day, but hey, I like salmon with double sides of broccoli. And I like being able to hear everybody at the table.

For pure drinking, give me a quiet neighborhood pub with a few single-malts for sale, a bar-tender who knows how to shut up, and one television (not two dozen big-screens) playing the local sports team. My ideal bar always has an empty table or two and is filled with small groups quietly enjoying themselves. I was at a recommended downtown bar the other day where there was  not one but two bachelorette parties going on, and where a simple 12-year-old McCallan went for $16 a shot. Spare me.

What brought all this home was stopping by a simple Micky D's this morning for a cup of really hot coffee. When running errands on a Sunday morning, I sometimes stop there on the way home to read the sports page and read about the Minnesota Vikings latest coaching mistake. McDonalds is so brightly lit that it's easy for me to see the fine print in the Star Tribune. And it's clean. And I like paying a $.99  for essentially the same coffee that Starbuck calls "Blonde Roast" and charges $4.50.

 It didn't register at first, but then I realized that three customers before me in line all ordered "senior coffee." "Is this what I've come to?" I wondered to myself. "Hanging at at McDonalds with old coots on Sunday mornings?" I reassured myself, though, that I was considerably younger that these old-timers. They looked like they might have personally known Mark Twain.

"Senior discount?" said the snide McDonald's minion to me when I reached the front of line. "You get the senior citizen discount if you're over 55 years old, you know."

Someday, perhaps, the kid will learn about Edward Hopper and Ernest Hemingway.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bionic Americans

Some friends were over for dinner and a movie the other night, and during the after dinner conversation, we found ourselves in agreement on one observation about our modern lives:

Growing older in America these days is largely a matter of exchanging our organic components for bionic equipment.

We're all relatively early in the phase of middle age, but it has started nonetheless. Everyone in the room wears corrective lenses of some kind. In my head are now four synthetic teeth--two gold crowns, two ceramic ones. I also now wear a hearing aid in one ear sometimes--I'm the first among our immediate group to succumb to this symptom of decrepitude.
Don't knock it. It's why I can still walk. 

A work colleague is a breast cancer survivor and speaks fondly of her bionic boob. We're at that age where cancer seems less like a tragedy and more like an inevitable rite of passage, albeit a grueling one. Once a rarity among our peers, we now know dozens of folks living with cancer.

Even our food has become more bionic. I quietly supplement my diet with a few vitamins and minerals that make a distinct difference in how I feel. Such things would have seemed silly 20 years ago, when my body was a paragon of efficient metabolism. For less efficient older bodies, though, dumping pure vitamin supplements into the system is only rational. I have one friend who takes this to extremes, devouring 20 or 30 different supplements and vitamins each day. It will only accelerate as we grow older. We'll add second hearing aids; somebody will eventually need a mechanical heart valve, or an internal insulin pump. Knee joints, hips, shoulder joints may eventually need to be replaced by bionic alternatives. I already have a rebuilt knee with tendons reinforced with metallic wire that will never corrode. Another Geezer just had an entire foot rebuilt to return him to the land of the ambulatory. This is no longer an aging process, but a swap meet.

I'm not complaining. The way I figure it, before long I'll be able to buy ultra-high spectrum eye glasses, and hearing aids that will let me eavesdrop on other people's thoughts.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Citizens of 4F, Dec. 10, 2013

On some mornings, every citizen who boards the 4F bus seems to wear the basic pain of living on his or her face.

Tom, the bus driver, nervously taps the steering wheel constantly; he's obsessed with hitting the scheduled time to each bus stop,  because passengers depend on him to deliver them on time each morning to their bus connections or to their work place. He takes this very seriously and his pain comes from the expectation he places on himself. When passengers thank him for the ride (in Minnesota, virtually everybody does this), Tom will genuinely appreciate the courtesy.

Frank has serious physical disabilities. He can board the bus only when the power lift door is dropped to the sidewalk so he can roll his hi-tech wheelchair aboard. The only muscle Frank seems able to use is the one hand that operates the joystick on his wheelchair. His huge pain lies in his complete lack of independent autonomy; he depends on the bus driver to walk back and cinch his wheelchair in place, and to free him once he reaches his stop.  Frank's pain is of the type we'd like to avoid thinking about, except on days like this when it's not possible to ignore.

Bonnie's pain is much less obvious, but it's there. She is a stunningly pretty girl, and the burden of being pretty shows on her face. When people glance at her, she shifts uneasily, unsure about how exactly she is being perceived. Sometimes she reacts to glances by smoothing her hair, dabbing at her lipstick; she seems convinced that others are staring at flaws. She faces great pressure to be pretty all the time, and at unguarded moments this pressure shows in her face. It's rather mild pain compared to that of others, but it's there nonetheless. 

Tom is a young, budding middle-manager aiming for an executive role some day, some place. The work badge he clips to his briefcase is for an investment firm now in serious financial trouble like so many others. Tom rides with eyes closed, and sometimes his lips move silently. He is practicing for some upcoming morning meeting, where the success of his performance perhaps will affect the security of his job.

Margaret is an older citizen, perhaps 70 years of age, and like many of the older folks, her pain is of a physical variety. She winces noticeably upon boarding the bus, and the wince is echoed whenever the bus lurches. Perhaps it is arthritis, or perhaps some other nerve problem, but either way her pain is evident. Like so many elderly folks, Margaret handles her pain with quite a lot of dignity.

All the 4F citizens show pain in some form on this cold, cold morning—every last one of them. And while there will be other mornings where I will be more attuned to their happiness, today it is their sorrows that touch me.  Strangely, this makes me feel a closeness and bond with my fellow citizens that is impossible otherwise. Their pain seems to scrape against my own nerve endings today, yet for this moment I would have it no other way.

Later today, I might find myself adopting indifference, or even irritation, in order to insulate myself from empathetic pain.  In the early morning, though, there is a still a softness of heart that makes all of us hurt together, a human communion. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

In News of the Absurd....

In news of the absurd....

Four U.S. states have passed laws that forbid drivers from smiling while posing for drivers' license photos.

The apparent reasoning is that face recognition software has trouble identifying you in surveyance photos if your reference photo—typically your drivers' license photo—doesn't feature an utterly neutral expression.

The states of paranoia where you're not allowed to smile: Arkansas, Indiana, Nevada and Virginia.

A transportation representative in Pennsylvania notes, however, that "in Pennsylvania, people are allowed to smile."

Thursday, December 5, 2013

"Happiness?" said God, "......"

Last week, I asked God to tell me something about happiness.

Now, you have to understand that I define God a little differently than do most people.

He/She/It isn't a supernatural being of any kind, not an eye-in-the-sky intelligence that plans our lives and future. Such a conceptual deity has never resonated with me, so I don't have any reason to believe in it. If this kind of definition is important to you, then you'd have to call me an atheist, because I don't believe in that kind of God at all. No way, no how.

Intuitively, though, I'm completely aware that there is within me a better self, a calm consciousness that has the capacity for much broader awareness than I'm normally capable. This higher self is something that is of me, but it is not me.

And further, I frequently find myself in a genuine "I and thou" relationship with that consciousness This sense of a better self is sometimes vivid enough that I can converse with it, have genuine dialogues with it.  And converse with it I do, in a kind of inner, silent way. (I've never really grokked that praying-out-loud thing.)

So that's what I do: talk to that part of myself that represents genuine clear awareness, the thing that whispers to me "this is how things truly are."

So last week during a bit of a bad stretch, thinking about this quality we call happiness, I found myself utterly bewildered and befuddled by it; unable to understand what happiness is, or what causes it, or what hinders it. So during a quiet period in the evening, after duties and recreation were done, but before sleep arrived, I spent a few minutes talking with Jehovah. "What can you tell me about happiness?" I said.

That first night, I felt Elohim smile for a long while before answering. The first answer was a little cryptic, and frankly left me more than a little annoyed at first. "Happiness? Just remember it," the voice said to me, playfully slipping into its Ahura Mazda accent this time.

So that first night, after getting over my annoyance, I simply allowed some memories of happiness
to take shape. There were lots of them, and some were a little surprising, things I hadn't thought about it years. Wandering along the edge of a woods at 10 years of age and coming across a small herd of deer grazing quietly in an alfalfa field; they showed no fear of me, and allowed me to sit within hands-reach  for a full hour.  Holding my infant son the day we brought him home from the hospital, seeing the startled and amazed look on his face as a warm spring breeze touched his face for the very first time ever. Some memory were utterly mundane: remembering eating toast with peanut butter that morning, with a cup of hazelnut coffee. A quiet experience of the senses that could only be called happiness.

On, and on. There was no end of happy memories, a fact that in and of itself surprised me a little. My day hadn't been particularly happy up to that point, but all it took was the barest of decisions to recall happiness, and there it was: happiness in abundance.

But I'm an analytical soul, and it's not enough to simply know that happiness is there, that it exists. I want to know the why and how. So later in the week, I posed a variation of the question. "And what's the nature of happiness?  Why isn't it always with us?"

Vishnu was silent for a long while—several days in fact. But then one night, a new message came from the greater self, delivered with no small amount of good-hearted amusement that seems common when my voice has been traveling to southern Asia: "To stay happy....just stop collecting the wrong stuff. Happiness is everything else. "

Enigmatic perhaps, but as I've worked this one for a few days now, I can't find much to fault with
the message. I don't much like knowing this about myself, but I'm afraid the inner voice might be right about this one. Too often, it's the wrong stuff I've been trying to collect and hold.

Hazelnut coffee with peanut-butter toast isn't particularly hard to obtain, after all. And re-runs of The Big Bang Theory can be viewed at almost any time of day or night.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The "Not -in-My-Backyard" Syndrome

Here in Minneapolis, a civic issue being discussed frequently these days is the planning for an additional LRT (Light Rail Transit) line for linking the affluent southwestern suburbs with the business center in downtown Minneapolis. What's unfolding is an interesting example of the subjective nature of ethical decision making.

Viewed from afar, a city's decisions on public works projects like this seems relatively easy: decide what offers the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, and be willing to sacrifice the needs and wishes of a minority in order to achieve that. In other words, it's entirely ethical for a city to condemn private property of a few people if, for example, it then helps create a park or hospital or some other project that's very much in the interest of many people.

In this particular Minneapolis example, some homeowners along the intended LRT route will lose some of their privacy, as well as some of the access to natural resources, that they have enjoyed up to now. But this cost will also provide greater access to downtown businesses and resources for  quite a large number of people, as well as improve the tax base of Minneapolis proper, since it will help those local businesses flourish.

For obvious reasons, cities normally seize property that falls in questionable neighborhoods, or neighborhoods inhabited by disenfranchised citizens who are less likely to voice opposition. Pretty hard to put a freeway through a neighborhood of wealthy, politically connected folks, for example, no matter how many people benefit

In our current example, a number of quite affluent and influential homeowners along one of the nicer stretches of the intended route are now agitating to prevent construction of the LRT line. It's easy enough to say that these wealthy homeowners along Cedar Lake in the MInneapolis Kenwood neighborhood are behaving selfishly, in their own best interests rather than the interest of the greater good as they attempt to block construction of a public utility that would clearly benefit many people. It's only about two dozen homes that are really affected by having their backyard viewlines changed.  Those homes, however, belong to folks with a hefty amount of clout.

Originally a double-wide freight train pathway, half of the rail bed became
a very pleasant bike path more than 20 years ago Now, efforts to reclaim the rail
bed for a commuter light-rail line have local residents outraged. 
Personal interest inevitably will blind you to this kind of thing. A few months ago, when the flight paths in and out of Minneapolis international airport were being rerouted, the proposed changes were clearly going to benefit many neighborhoods at the expense of a few. At the time, I felt that protesters were being a little selfish in arguing against such a move. Then I realized that my own neighborhood would be among those affected negatively by the move, and suddenly I saw some logic in those protests.

It's also true that an LRT line would primarily benefit  suburbanites seeking access to the downtown districts, and would not be of huge benefits to us in the city.  Years ago, a major freeway was cut through the heart of Minneapolis, aimed specifically at delivering office workers into downtown from the suburbs. 40 years later, large chunks of once fine neighborhoods along Park Avenue still have not recovered from the devastation. Is our city really obliged to chop up more of our real estate just to make it easier for prissy suburbanites to get to their jobs?

...on the other hand, those very commuters from the despised wealthy suburbs are what make it possible for Minneapolis to support major league sports team, world class theater and museums, etc. etc. Easy access to downtown for the suburbanites means that I can hop over to the ballpark or the Guthrie Theater after work with ease.

By 2020, there could be a big wad of brown
noise over my home to the west of Minneapolis
airport. Unless the revolution comes first. 

It's not an easy issue to resolve. We are all at heart somewhat selfish creatures, and setting that self-interest aside to support the greater public good is difficult indeed. My current derision at the selfishness of Kenwood residents seems logical only because I don't happen to live there and only occasionally use the bike and nature trails located there. I'd no doubt feel much different if I lived 30 blocks closer. 

Just keep that flight path away from my sky.