Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

No Words Necessary

This is why some Geezers tolerate Minnesota winters. A selection of photos from a short hike yesterday at Afton State Park, overlooking the St. Croix River, 20 minutes from downtown Minneapolis.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Geezer History of the Hipster Style

In October of 1993, a young art director named Jakobb Whitaker, who worked at a downtown Manhattan ad agency, overslept his alarm after a night of drinking designer cocktails at a trendy Village club.  Running far too late that morning to shower, shave and go through the normal workday niceties, Jakobb cursed his bad luck, grabbed the first clean clothes he could find—which happened to be a pair of slacks and a suit jacket belonging to his room-mate and brother, Mozes Whitaker.

The garments Jakobb donned that morning were both too short in the legs and arms, and too tight for him, but he was frankly too hung-over to care. He was also too drunk to realize that he was also sporting a two-day growth of stubble beard and hair that poked up in irrational tufts of stubble from his head. He didn't even realize that he had left the shirt-tails of his brother's dress-shirt hanging loose under the too-tight suit jacket. He grabbed sunglasses only because he wanted no one to see his horribly blood-shot eyes.

It was a highly uncharacteristic sartorial state for Jakobb, but he was too tired and irritable to care, really, and this irritability fueled the mildly defiant attitude with which he arrived at the ad agency—which by the way, was the same ad agency that famously created the Lamisil toenail fungus ad campaign. As a result of his irritability,  he evinced no embarrassment or apology that morning for his disheveled appearance in a professional setting, and acted for all the world like this haphazardness was some sort of intentional style statement, not an unprofessional manifestation of carry-over drunkenness.

Good grief. Either shave, or grow a real beard. 
The rest is unfortunate history—and one reason why third-world nations hate America. The pampered young professionals at Jakobb's office, who had endured no real struggle in their lives, and harbored no goals of genuine substance, quickly seized on Jakobb's appearance as something to emulate, and by the end of the week all the young male workers under the age of 40 looked like cloned versions of Jakobb, and were already pushing the boundaries of slovenliness by adding denim jackets that had been artificially aged, and wearing knit Jamaican caps indoors.

With the terrifying swiftness of an insidious airborne virus, all of Manhattan fell next, then the entire eastern seaboard. The virus then took a quantum jump to the west coast, carried via 30 year old stock broker traveling first class on United Airlines, where it quickly raced up and down the Pacific coast. In its west coast mutation, hipsterism began to present with bright yellow and green slacks, and purple and red shawls wrapped around the neck like scarves. It was here, too—specifically on the beach communities—that young men began wearing their ball caps backwards on their heads.  In the northern coastal regions, from San Francisco northward, there was an explosion of purchases of JD Salinger's novel, Catcher in the Rye. Ironically, the hipsters seemed to completely miss the way the novel first person narrator, Holden Caulfield's, scathingly indicts cultural phonies.

Last to be infected was America's major heartland cities of Chicago, Minneapolis, and Fargo, ND, but fall they did, and in shockingly quick fashion. However, no new creativeness was brought to the hipster malaise here; mere emulation was all the midwesterners could muster. It was the first sign that the virulence of hipsterism might one day soften; under the stoic Midwestern genetic makeup, hipster mutation began to wane.

A mere 12 months after Jakobb Whitaker's ill-advised  preparation for work one morning, more than 90% of young male professionals in America no longer knew how to shave closely, how to choose clothes that fit, or how to tuck in their shirt tails. Most had even forgotten how to use a comb. Chronic hipterism is now nearly 20 years old in America.

Like all viruses, there are signs that hipsterism is beginning to run its course. Yesterday, the repairman who arrived to work on our  office copy machines, a fellow at least 50 years old, was wearing full hipster regalia—a sight which highlighted the fashion absurdity in no uncertain terms. The young hipster men in our office could be seen gathered outside the copy room, worriedly conferring and gesturing to the poor chronic middle-aged victim a few feet away.

The very next day, one young art director arrived at the office with his shirt-tails tucked in. It is too early to tell if this indicates natural immunity is at last developing, but it is to be hoped that the Midwest, last to be infected, will be the first to recover from hipsterism.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Highway 19 Revisited

On Saturday morning I hit the road out of Minneapolis very early in the morning. I am in the mood for a bit of a driving trip, and although the straight distance I cover will be only 65 miles, my odometer will put on 150 miles or so.  My intent is to wander around southeastern Minnesota along the small state and county highways on the way to my destination south of Red Wing.

Because Mrs. Mercurious is out of town traveling with her girlfriends, I am driving down to check on her aging parents at their rural home. But on the way I am also planning to stop in for a long coffee session with my oldest friend, whose wife, as it happens, is also one of the girlfriends traveling with my wife.The four of us are old, old friends. I'm expected at my in-laws at 10:30 or so, and calculating the recreational drive time plus an hour or two talking politics and philosophy with Steve has produced my early starting time.

The dawn is just breaking as I approach the south edge of Dakota County near the boundary of Goodhue county.  It's fully clear far to the east where the sun breaks, but the overhead sky is mostly cloudy. The sunrise has turned the sky salmon pink, casting a warm light on the fields of corn and soybeans, which are finally beginning to dry due to the first hard frost that hit the countryside last week.

It's early enough that in the dairy farms on either side of the highway, the cattle are all hovering around the barns, intuitively gathering there for the first milking of the day. So the only livestock out in the pastures in the early morning are the beef stock and occasionally some sheep.  The livestock graze contentedly with heads down; because of the low, oblique sunlight, elongated shadows extend out like stretched silouettes on the ground westward from all the grazing animals.

This topography is on the very eastern edge of the great upper midwestern prairie, and the farmlands in this area are rolling flatness. Far off to the south and east, I can see the edges of the big hills that mark the beginning of the bluff country lining the Mississippi river valley.

A bit later, I'm a few miles away from Cannon Falls and the highway is relatively deserted, but far behind me in my rear-view mirror, I see the headlights of a car approaching at what is clearly high speed. The car's low profile is no sheriff or highway patrolman, though, so out of curiosity I increase my speed thinking that it will be interesting to see how fast this fellow is going.

I'm going 80 or so when the driver approaching fast from behind smoothly shifts lanes to pass me, after appropriately signaling. The driver nods his head briefly as he passes, seemingly in acknowledgment of another driver who rather likes the sensation of speed on an early morning on a good highway. He's a young man, maybe in his early 20s, driving a Camaro that might be older than he is. The car has clearly been well cared for but has none of the ostentatious souped-up trappings with which some kids dress up their cars.

Almost immediately upon merging back into the right lane, he signals his intent to exit onto Highway 19, which coincidentally happens to also be my destination: it's part of the meandering path I intend to take this morning.  For a brief moment I have that middle-aged fatherly impulse to frown and shake my head at the excessive speed and potentially dangerous behavior of this young man, but instead find myself smiling a little. It's rather pleasing to see the joy of a young man with excellent driving skills and great reflexes fully at ease with the operation of a well-functioning machine that he understands so well.

The young man is a very good driver, and although fast, he's not particularly reckless. As we pass through the small town of Cannon Falls, he obeys the speed limits precisely—considerably more so than I would at this time of the morning. He makes no effort to scream away from stop signs with smoking rubber; he accelerates firmly but without excessive ego. It's not until we safely reach the outskirts of town that he hits the power again, and I follow him at a safe distance, not because I'm concerned for his safety or outraged by his behavior, but because it's enjoyable to watch.

As Highway 10 moves east out of Cannon Falls into the start of the hilly bluff country with winding turns, he uses his lane precisely but without violating their boundaries, cutting to the inside of sharp turns, smoothly accelerating coming out of the turns to keep his vectors changing. He clearly knows the road well; as we approach the turns, he seems to know which of them he can approach with fair speed, and those for which he'll need to brake going into the curve.

About 10 miles into the drive, the young man smoothly cuts off the highway onto a dirt gravel road, barely breaking stride at all. As I pass the point where the intersecting road meets the highway, I see him moving away in a cloud of mustard-colored dust, still doing perhaps 50 or 55 mph, fish-tailing slightly, but skillfully countering with small compensations of the steering wheel.

That explains a lot. Rural kids learning to drive on these gravel roads know a lot about how to control the inevitable sliding on corners, how to drift correctly through turns, precisely how much to accelerate and how to brake correctly without losing contact with the road. Later this morning, in fact, I'll be revisiting similar roads, where as a youth I squeezed past roaring milk trucks barreling through turns going in the opposite directly. Kids who grow up learning how to drive gravel roads at 60 miles an hour find driving on paved highways and freeways almost boring in their simplicity.

On this early morning, the young fellow is simply enjoying his proficient  skill with his machine on an entertaining road with interesting turns at a time of day when there is little hazard. It is a little dangerous, yes, but what is youth for if not to enjoy that feeling being  healthy and fully competent and a bit immortal?  Soon enough it will be replaced by more sensible caution and boring self preservation.

I now have Highway 19 all to myself as it now enters the real bluff country nearing the Mississippi valley, and the road gets increasingly interesting, with nice vertical movement and good turns, engineered with just the right banking pitches. It is a well designed highway, very well built, and it is a joy to drive on in an early autumn morning.

Coming out of the last turn, I come close to winning my Thanksgiving dinner. Four huge wild turkeys are walking across the road. They are safely on the shoulder as I pass them, and there is no braking or swerving necessary. They look back at me indignantly as I pass by.

Out of this last turn, Highway 19 straightens out as it comes to an end. I have perhaps a hour of meandering driving left, including a short stretch on well-known Highway 61, but most of it will be on unknown country highways and a few gravel roads before I will pull into Steve's riverside home for coffee and muffins.

As I approach the right hand turn from Highway 19 onto Highway 61, the big Mississippi Valley is visible for the first time, and the high bluffs of the Wisconsin side of the river, closer now,  have the early autumn color of hardwoods beginning to redden.

The song playing on the car's radio through my I-phone makes me smile. It is in no way apropos of the moment—there's no real poetic synronicity here— but Jose Feliciano's famous acoustic  rendition of an iconic Door's song elevates my general well-being to a level that's nearly painful in its expansive pleasantness:

"You know I would be a liar
If I was to say to say to you
Girl we couldn't get much higher"

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quiet Evil involving Saint Francis

On a breezily balmy, cool night in early September, I take an evening walk, and as is sometimes the case, on the way back I pause to sit in a small sanctuary on the grounds of the nearby Catholic church. A small statue of Saint Francis stands opposite a small wrought iron bench, and the little sitting area filled with flowers is partially enclosed with short shrubs. On a nice night, it is a very pleasant place to sit and reflect for awhile.

From the nearby neighborhood, I see a 60-something woman smoking a cigarette approach. She is wearing a bathrobe and slippers and is leading two frantic little black dogs on retractable leashes. She climbs the concrete steps onto the pristine lawn that fills the space between the chapel and the rectory, walking in a direction that's not directly toward me but which will take her right by my location.  She's out for the nightly constitutional with her dogs, and this possibly is her normal route in the evening.

Just before she gets to the little grotto, her dogs stop to have their evening crap, simultaneously. The woman looks around in the falling night for a moment, then continues her walk without cleaning up after the ugly little brutes. Then she arrives at the little sitting area, sees me then jumps back, startled. The dogs begin to snarl and strain at their leashes in my direction.

"Don't you dare take a step this direction," she barks at me. "While my dogs are eating you, I'll be calling the cops." She backs this up by fumbling for cell phone, apparently tucked into her pajamas somewhere well south of her waist band.

I think, "Really?"  The snippy little dogs would take an hour just to gnaw through my trouser leg, much less do any skin damage. Moreover, a pretty mild kick would punt each beast well back down into the parking lot (I have a friend who used to describe such mean spirited little purse dogs as "rats on a rope"). And finally, what in the world is threatening about a middle aged guy with a greying beard sitting quietly in a church yard contemplating a stature of St. Andrew?  I'm not the one out in public looking like a trailer park escapee and letting ugly little dogs crap on the pretty grounds of a churchyard.

Now, the civilized, compassionate thing to do would have been to introduce myself, apologize for having startled her,  and reassure the woman that I posed no threat. After all, nobody develops a character like this unless through some inherited or learned fear, and unwinding such a thing requires that you contradict those fearful expectations.

Instead, I do a slightly evil thing. I remain utterly motionless, and stare past the woman  into the distance, ghostlike in the semi-darkness. This will, I know, be far more unnerving to her and cause her to remember the event for a long time, possibly even interfering with her sleep tonight.

I'm a bad, bad man.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Fountain of my Youth

Elsewhere in these pages, I've mentioned the name "Hay Creek," a geographic place name that depicts both a tiny freshwater stream in south eastern Minnesota, and also the name of the small township nestled between limestone bluffs where my childhood home was located.

Hay Creek—I'm talking about the little stream now,  the "crick" as we pronounced it— has always held a somewhat mythological significance for me. This might seem strange, since I grew up only about 7 miles from the mighty Mississippi River itself— the same river mentioned so prominently in the first real novels I ever read, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Certainly I grew up in awe of the mere idea of "The River."

 But it was little Hay Creek that held the deepest meaning for me. I was perhaps 4 years old or so when I traced the dry gully bed that ran behind my childhood home to the point a mile or two away where it emptied into Hay Creek, with its musical, flowing waters, its small trout hovering motionless in the shadows, and crayfish clinging to the bottoms of rocks.  And I quickly realized that Hay Creek itself emptied into the mighty River itself at some mysterious point in the distance, and that the River itself eventually found its way to the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean itself. During big rainstorms or the spring melt,  when the gully turned into an active stream on its own under the outflow of waters off the hills, I pondered how long it would take those waters to reach the Atlantic Ocean. With a childhood that was a little uncertain and a lot unpredictable, the certain, steadfast cycle of waters, from sky rain to run-off from the bluffs, to the gully, to the creek, to the River and to the Ocean—was exceedingly reassuring to me. It was a very concrete idea I could hold onto.

The creek was the principle area of play for kids growing up in the township. The "big city" kids of Red Wing were swimming at the chorine-filled municipal swimming pool, while we learned that the creek had natural deep spots at its ox-bow turns, and that if you build your own dams from rocks on the downstream side, you could create even deeper pools to swim in. While the town kids were catching hideous bullheads along the mud flats of the Mississippi, we were snagging much more interesting little brown trout by plying the shadows beneath the big timbers of old railway trestles that spanned the creek.

From time to time over the years until I was 13 or 14  I occasionally made efforts to try and figure out where little Hay Creek began its official run. The maps put it somewhere to the south, near a little town called Goodhue, but in those days before Google Earth, it was hard to pinpoint it.  The lateral distance covered by Hay Creek, as the crow flies, was only 12 miles or so, although its sinuous turns certainly at least tripled or quadrupled the actual length.  In my mind's eye, I imagined the creek to start at some mysterious natural spring bursting forth from the side of a bluff somewhere in a hidden valley.  I did know for certain that it was more than just a watershed runoff creek, because even in the driest weather, the creek ran with some water—enough so that small trout and crayfish could continue to exist even after two or three weeks of the sunniest drought.  From the time I was six years old or so, I occasionally took adventurous daylong hikes upstream, thinking that I would discover the source of Hay Creek, like some young Meriwether Lewis in Converse sneakers. On two occasions I found little tributary feed streams, both of which were indeed fed by small seeping springs that oozed up in cow pastures and flowed down to bolster the flow of the creek. But the ultimate source always eluded me. Each time, daylight ran out before I finished my expedition,  and I always ended up calling home from a farmer's kitchen or saloon owner's bar to have my Dad come and pick me up. Wisely, he knew that I needed the quest and did not manhandle the exploration for me by chaperoning these adventures himself. Instead, he patiently picked me up when I called him from 8 or 10 miles away on some early evening in August or September, foiled again in my search for the Heart of Darkness.

About the time that junior high school started, new adventures beckoned (they had long hair and wore bikinis), and I lost interest in finding the long-lost headwaters of the the 12-inch deep, mighty Hay Creek.

So I never did find the source of Hay Creek. Until recently.

A few days ago, on a drowsy weekend when my wife and I were already visiting her parents (they still live in the same county where we grew) I dialed up the territory on Google Earth, and carefully tried to trace the upper ends of the Creek and pinpoint the location. It's a method only possible, really, with satellite views of a rural countryside—not an available technology 50 years ago.  The exercise was prompted, I suppose, by the recent passing of my father. I'm sure there was a bit of nostalgia in my choosing to resurrect my search for origins at this particular moment.

The next morning, just as dawn broke, I drove out into the countryside to a point where high-tension power lines crossed a little gravel road, then followed the utility lines inland and downward, across a deserted railway bed,  to a point where two small drainage ditches joined and crossed beneath a farmer's field access road, through a 16"in wide culvert to become something like a tiny little creek. The waters only barely flowed at all, but once there is discernible motion and flow, you're looking at more than a puddle.

To all intents and purposes, this was the start of Hay Creek's ultimate run to the ocean. Though I could see, even now, that it was by no means a definitive beginning. The little drainage ditches themselves continued a bit further, and when I followed one of them, I saw that you could make the case for the creek beginning in a single crease that passed through the middle of a single alfalfa field, where it appeared that a microscopic seep spring moistened the grass enough to create a tiny rivulet. Hay Creek had been named most appropriately, indeed, because its source seemed to be the middle of a hay field.

Later that morning, I drove back into Red Wing to pinpoint the spot where Hay Creek entered the Mississippi. To my surprise, I found that the terminus was no more definitive that the stream's beginning. As it approaches the River, Hay Creek first feeds into a large marshy area a couple miles from the Mississippi itself. Environmentally, this is a happy occurrence, since  the creek waters undoubtedly carry some fertilizer residue from the many farms along its route, and the marsh lands help scrub the water before it goes any further. Then, Hay Creek resumes in a tiny outlet flow, passes under the Highway 61 of Bob Dylan fame, and quietly enters the Mississippi River in a muddy little delta, a faint echo of the massive delta where the Mississippi will eventually find the ocean 2,000 miles downstream at the bottom of the continent.

So in the final measure, this mythological stream of my youth proved to have no real drama in either its beginning or its ending. You might think that this was something of a disappointment to me, but it was not so. At my age and with my experience, the fact that beginnings and endings are hazy, imprecise affairs is no longer unexpected news to me, and in fact is a little reassuring.

Nothing is less certain than a beginning or an ending, and it's because of this that world allows for so many interpretations and possibilities.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Overheard: August 29, 2014

In Will Rogers State Park in Los Angeles. Two young women wearing "come get me" dresses and F me heels, tottering up a very steep hill toward the polo field. The first one said, "I told him. If you want to date a woman like me, you have to act like a man." The second one nodded and said, "Yeah. He needs to step it up if he wants to play in our league."

Silence for a minute. It's a steep climb on a warm day. 

As they reached the edge of the parking lot, the second one said, almost gasping, "My feet are killing me."

The first one, very evenly. "Yes. But at least we saved the $12 on parking."

Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Will to Move

I'd like to offer the premise that life can be defined according to a carbon-based biological form's ability to willfully move about in the world. The associated premise: that illness and dying is largely the process of losing or conceding the capacity for willful motion. Creatures who are alive are those that act in the world with something resembling volition or will. Unliving things or dead creatures do not have this capacity.

Now, there are people who would argue that the planet itself is a living entity, but I doubt that many people would say the motion of glaciers moving from mountains to the sea, or volcanoes spitting lava, or earthquaking splitting open the crust are deliberate acts of will. We generally believe these to be actions caused by laws of physics, not choice.

Something resembling volition seems to begin to appear with simple plant life forms. If not willful motion, then the responses seem to be more directly and visibly a reaction to stimuli. In watching a field of sunflowers rotate their heads following the sun, for example, it's not a huge leap to imagine something like the beginnings of willful motion.

In the most simple animals, like plankton or jelly-fish, the line between plant and animal begins to blur, and the responses and capacity for action become more sophisticated. Movement seems to be based on the rudiments of choice. And in animals that are more evolved, it does seem that something like willful choosing of action occurs. In a dog that lovingly licks your face, or a caged gorilla that stares at you through the glass with something that genuinely looks like interest or curiosity, you do see something like the will to choose. (In likelihood there is probably more programmed instinct in these things than we imagine. The eagle soaring on the breeze isn't likely really enjoying the sensation of leisurely flight, but is constantly searching for things on the ground to eat, using the most efficient means of locomotion. We tend to anthropomorphize many animal behaviors.)

We of course like to imagine that the human species represents the pinnacle of biological evolution, and that every movement and action is done out of free will, of our own volition. In reality, I think, much of our behavior is still conditioned and instinctual. But nonetheless, there is considerable freedom in being human; and that freedom is about our volition, our ability to move in the world out of simple will.

And it's not a hard reach to think that in a few million years some descendent of the current human species will evolve a far more sophisticated capacity for movement. The ability to telekinetically move objects, or even move ourselves physically using just the power of the mind, could conceivably be an evolutionary stage yet to come. (No, I don't believe this kind of thing exists yet among yogis or New Age messiahs).

Having now watched my father and some other older people get sick and die—and seeing other aging folks who are beginning to get ill—I've come to the conclusion that the death process is largely about conceding that ability for motion in the physical world. In my father's case, the will to travel extensively around the whole world became restricted to living and vacationing within one or two states, then to his home town, then to his home and yard, then to only one floor of his home, then to a nursing home, then simply to his one room in the nursing home. In the final weeks, that movement became confined to his bed, and then finally even the ability for the mind itself to move about willfully in imagination was conceded. And then he was dead. It was almost as though it was the dwindling of motion that was the culprit.

Even when otherwise healthy people become temporarily sick with ailments like a simple cold or flu, we generally find our willful movement is curtailed, and we remain at home or even in bed for the duration. We know we are returning to health at the moment we venture out to the house to do yard work or when we return to going to restaurants or movies or parties. When I'm sick, it's very hard for me to stay in the house or in bed constantly; sometimes against the advice of my wife or doctors, I go for a walk around the block when sick, simply because I don't feel so sick when I'm able and willing to move. The distinction between cause and effect isn't clearcut. Sometimes I think it is lack of motion that creates illness, not the other way around.

I think, in fact, that you can judge the relative health of a person simply by watching how, and how much, they move. A person who moves little is almost certainly unhealthy and perhaps even dying, while somebody who moves often and in sophisticated, willful ways, is almost certainly at the peak of health.

Beginning to recover from one of those nasty summer colds I've had for the last few days, I went for a long walk tonight. I must say, the movement felt really good.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Saturday at The Grove

Given that the traditional Geezers have been terrifically lazy of late, we are pleased to welcome to these pages the words of Sehr Wenig, a guest Geezer for whom we have high hopes, as her talent, ironically, is very large. From time to time—and perhaps quite often, if we're lucky— Sehr's essays and observations will offer respite from the manly rantings of Mercurious, the Professor and other Emeriti. 

Saturday afternoon at The Grove, an upscale open air shopping area behind the CBS production lot. I'm sitting on the patio of my favorite restaurant there, drinking a raspberry lemon drop and eating a salad. 

Across the walkway, beside a dancing fountain stands a 40-ish man holding a huge bouquet of orange roses wrapped in orange paper. A small green bag from a jewelry store dangles from his left hand. He faces the alley between the restaurant where I'm sitting and another one across the way, scanning the crowd for The One. 

Pink Shirt Guy places the roses on the ledge surrounding the fountain, sits beside them, and rests the bag at his feet. After a moment, he adjusts the roses so the blooms face the alley. After another moment, he stands up, restores the roses to his arms and the bag to its dangle, and paces two steps each direction, never looking away from the alley for more than a few seconds at a time.

Small drops of sweat stream down his face and you can tell he knows they're there but has nothing to wipe them away with. He stops pacing and squints into the sun, then turns in a circle, eyes jerking behind his Burberry sunglasses. Now the flowers are back on the ledge. Now they're back in his arms. 

He strides away from the fountain, toward a small patch of shade. From under two small trees, he adjusts his position to maximize his visibility from the alley. The bag is  at his feet and the roses down at his side while he peers at his cell phone as though willing a text message to appear. Without a hocus for this pocus, the roses move back to a pageant-queen embrace and the bag back to mid-knee, label forward. 

Eventually, his face lights up and he steps forward eagerly to greet a small, slightly round, brown skinned woman with wild gray hair and a shy smile. He presents her with the roses and leads her to the restaurant where I'm sitting but too far away for me to hear even a word of their conversation.

Better this way. The endings I made up are sure to be more entertaining than the truth.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Final Memory Before Shifting Gears....

I wanted to express thanks to those of you who listened and responded so kindly to my reveries and observations around the terminal illness of my father, and to close out the story for you.

Dad passed away three weeks ago, quietly in his sleep. Altogether, it wasn't a bad death—several months from diagnosis to ending allowed us to say our goodbyes in all necessary ways. And it was swift enough that Dad did not suffer for very long from a disease (pancreatic cancer) which is known to be rather brutal. His steadfastness and dignity during this time was notable, and gives me something to shoot for somewhere down the road when I face the end game myself.

Dad wasn't an unusual man, really—not a fascinating or heroic figure, except in the way that fathers always seem heroic and larger than life to their sons. He certainly had his flaws. But he was an exceptionally devoted and dependable man, a good and decent human being. In the final measure, we should all be so lucky as to leave that reputation when we pass away. And his final month or so was spent in a very dignified, almost elegant manner. As the minister (who happens to be my step-sister) said at his funeral, his example taught us much about how to die well.

So I'll leave you with one final memory of Dad before leaving it be and returning to other subjects in the future. It's time to get back to the business of living, as there's no reason to obsess on what is inevitable anyway.

In 1958 my father left his stint as a Navy helicopter pilot and moved back to Minnesota to take a job as a math teacher in a small county-seat town in the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota.  Raising a family with two young boys (soon to be three) was challenging, to say the least. Public school teachers have never been paid well, and in the late 50s the pay was so lean that he struggled took a second job as a county assessor to get approved for an $6,000 mortgage to build our first house. Though he had very little money, this first-generation son of inexhaustible Norwegian immigrant farmers had unlimited energy, and he would need it. Young boys need a lot of attention, and my mom was an insecure turbulent, 20-year old girl barely past childhood herself in those days. Dad had his hands full.

Before the real house, our first home in Red Wing was a small used house trailer plunked down on a small piece of land he bought from a local dairy farmer seven miles south of town. The setting was a wonderfully picturesque ancient river valley nestled among limestone bluffs. Many thousands of years ago, the deep valley was carved by melting glaciers—the same geologic action that carved the nearby Mississippi River valley.  When I climbed those bluffs as a boy, I could see the entire geologic history like it was yesterday’s story.

The little township we lived in was called Hay Creek, aptly named because the tiny stream running through the bottom of the valley on its way to the Mississippi River was (and still is) lined with alfalfa hay fields attached to the lovely dairy farms scattered about.  It was an ideal location for my Dad to settle, for it certainly must have reminded him of the diary country in the far northwestern portion of the state where he was raised.

If the geographic location was ideal, the economic conditions where a struggle. The two-acre garden Dad established wasn’t a hobby, but the source much of the food we ate in the early days. I recall times when, if we wanted to drive to town and have root beer floats at the local A & W, we had to search the cushions of the couch, the crevices of the car seats, for spare change. We couldn't afford a private phone line yet; we shared a party line with three other neighbors in the area. I was approaching high school before I had my first store-bought haircut; until then Dad clipped our hair himself by seating us on a stool and shearing us with an electric trimmer. This wasn’t poverty, really, just a lean, young family making ends meet in the late 1950s and early 60s, like so many others. It's not a lifestyle my own kids ever knew, though. Sometimes we forget how well-cushioned the typical middle-class lifestyle is today. 

The small mortgage Dad qualified for in 1959 was enough to start the little one-and-a-half story house nestled near the base of the bluff, but not to finish it. We lived in the basement at first, as Dad painstakingly finished the small second-story himself, where the two small additional bedrooms and a half-bath would be located. A few years later he would then be able to afford to add a small room addition to the back of the house, where we would enjoy the luxury of a family room with an actual fireplace.

The location was ideal for boys growing up. We roamed the fields and nearby woods, played with the kids with other young families who also bought building sites from Howie, the farmer. It’s that home that gave me a familiarity and love of natural landscape that remains with me today. The nearby pastures were filled with huge, gentle Holstein dairy cows that trimmed down the dense brush and turned it into nicely groomed groves where young boys could play without the constant fearful supervision that plagues today’s families. The only danger was from stepping in cow dung, or more accurately, stepping in cow dung then forgetting to clean off your shoes before going indoors for the night.  The many farm animals around the area, and especially the huge gentle horses and dairy cows, made nature seem like an immense nurturing maternal force, and to this day I’m never so relaxed as when roaming somewhere deep in a rural countryside.

A particular memory about my dad stands out and speaks volume about the kind of man he was. Directly behind our house ran a deep watershed gully that separated our house from the farmer’s fields running up to the edge of the big bluffs. We owned the wooded land just beyond the gully and just before the alfalfa fields began, so one summer as diversion for sons he couldn’t afford to regularly treat to ballgames or movies, Dad cleared a large camp site a fifty yards or so from the house. He build a diagonal picket wind-break fence, constructed a big fire-pit from limestone rocks carried up from the bottom of the gully, then found a big camel-hair couch and armchair and somehow hauled them by hand across a thirty-foot deep rocky gully, back up onto the flat area of the camp site. He did all this himself, because at six years old I wasn’t much help.   My dad couldn’t afford a lot in the early days, but he sure did have energy to spend.

There’s where we spent our family evenings in the summer and warm autumn days hearing stories of Irish and Norwegian immigrants, hearing tales of the WWII years—which were recent history in those days—and listening to my mother tell ghost stories vivid enough to scare the bejeesus out of you. We heard Dad talk about the atom bomb tests he witnessed as a pilot in the Nevada desert; about what occupied Japan was like in the years after the wars. We sat there deep into the night until the embers faded and the greenish flicker of fireflies filled the woods, then threw waterproof taps over the couch and chair, and followed the dark trail back through the gully and up to the house.

Eventually we boys became engaged in school sports, found girlfriends, then went off to college.  My parents moved away from Hay Creek township and into a real town, and we lost track of the old neighbors. Howie, the nearby farmer, got sick and passed away, and the dairy herds that had groomed the woods were sold to other farmers. The gully transformed back into a wild, bramble-filled ditch, no longer suitable for kids to play in.

Many, many years later after my mother died, I returned back to that valley one day and climbed the bluff to look over the valley again, high above the old home. Then I hacked my way down through the thickets and tramped around the place where I thought the campsite must have been located. There was nothing left that I could find, really. The windbreak fences had long since decayed away, as had the wood and fabric of the old couch and armchair. I could not even find the rocks of the fire pit, and I began to wonder if I had imagined those wonderful times.

Then, kicking through the thick layer of decayed leaves and  vegetation, up poked some rusty metal. I picked it up and realized that I had found a section of coil spring from the cushions of a big overstuff couch, the couch that a young school teacher had carried on his back across a deep gully in 1961, as he tried to build a place for his young sons to have fun.

That rusty old metal spring now hangs in my garage to remind me of those times. When I glance at it, I always wonder  if, when I’m very old, my own kids will have some memory of me that even hints at the level of energy and sacrifice that was an everyday thing for my father.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bedside Reverie

From Friday to Monday, we sat vigil at Dad's bedside, until emotional fatigue and the opinion of the doctor sent us back to Minneapolis to rest. We're told that Dad has come back from the immediate brink, and that his core vital functions are now just stable enough that he could now last as much as a week or so. Further, he's no longer aware of our presence, and seems to rest better in quiet than when constantly attended. My brother and I are badly in need of recharged batteries, so we headed back to Minneapolis knowing that a last return trip out to far southwestern Minnesota is coming pretty soon. Sitting bedside by a dying parent gives you a lot of time to think, and in between periods of sadness, I found myself wondering a lot about the faculty we call personality—what is it that creates the "person-ness" of an individual being.

At the opposite polls of ideas about what constitutes a personality are the clinical scientific definitions on the one hand,  and the romantic, spiritual ones on the other.

The first theory would have us believe that the individual "self" or "soul" is really in the final measure just a complex and sophisticated interaction of chemical signals and genetics—a model that is ultimately understandable through scientific means. The other pole would have us believe the soulful personality is something transcendent, an entity that can't be explained empirically, but only grasped spiritually.

Oddly, as I watch Dad's unconscious face, the first explanation would be a little more reassuring to me. Seeing the flitting emotional expressions that cross his face unconsciously, I would be comforted to think that these are just residual electro-chemical impulses, and not expressions of a soul or personality trapped in a biological organism that is steadily ceasing to function. But watching these expressions, I see just too much of Dad's individuality, his person-ness, to allow me the first interpretation, and this makes it hard to watch these final days. Like a new-born infant sleeping, Dad's face in semi-coma is a canvas on which a variety of emotions appear from time to time  In the slight wry grimace, I see his disgusted scolding of me when I was 17 and coming home after drinking beer with friends on a camping trip. In his low chuckle, I hear him laughing with delight when my kids, his grandchildren, did something precocious to to amuse him. In the furrowed brow and intense look of concentration, I see him watching the nightly news during the Vietnam days wondering what the hell was going on in this country.

Now, for the first time, I really see the strong resemblance to each of my brothers. My youngest brother in Dad's mouth. My second brother in his eyes and forehead. A little bit of my own kids in his expressions. I still don't really see much of myself in him, though others have told me they spot me as his son from a mile away.

There is just too much person-ness there to explain it as mere neurological chemical activity. What will happen to that person-ness in the next few days? When he does pass away, that personality will certainly continue to dwell in some fashion in all of us who know him. And I still have the strong intuition that there's more to it than that.  When I look around at the natural world, I see no evidence that anything, anywhere, dies without returning. Spring follows winter,  growth sprouts from decay, producing seeds that lead to green growth and more decay, and more life.  Neither matter nor energy can be destroyed, and it seems only logical that the energy of Dad's person-ness will be going somewhere in the very near future. 'Only symbolically,' some skeptics might say to me gently. 'Not literally.'  To which I would reply that symbolic truth is the most legitimate kind.

On the long drive home through the agricultural prairie, massive recent rains have left the ground completely saturated. No only are the marshes full, but the low areas of every planted field have become small lakes. Rains so heavy that that they've made the national news wires and closed some of the highways we normally travel on.  This water is now slowly moving toward creeks and rivers under the gentle tug of gravity, and already back in St. Paul, some of the water that fell here in the last few days is making the Mississippi River rise toward major flooding. Eventually the water vapor that fell here as rain will become part of the Atlantic ocean again, and sometime after that, this moisture will fall here or elsewhere as rain again, and will begin another journey back to the ocean. The substance of the water vapor will not have changed at all in all those iterations, and every present action ripples into the future. As Einstein seems to have believed, past, present and future really exist simultaneously, if we had the faculties to see it.

The heavy rains and temporary lakes out here in southwestern Minnesota have also brought out lots of wild life, especially birds. Many are feeding off the worms, insects and small animals that have been brought up out of the ground when it became full of water. On the telephone wires, in the ponds, on the fence posts and in the skies I recognize fresh water pelicans, egrets, meadowlarks, kingfishers, red wing blackbirds,  red-tail hawks, bald eagles.

I knew the names of all these birds and many more before I was five years old, because they are things my father taught me before I even started school.  And in musing about the fact of fathers teaching their children things about the world, I have the answer to my questions.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Aiming at the Target

Here in Minneapolis, the Target Corporation has long been something of a sacred cow, given that its corporate headquarters are located here, about three blocks from where I now work. Not only do they employ many hundreds of people here in downtown, but they have also been notably good corporate citizens within the community and across the nation. A sizable amount of philanthropy comes through the Target corporation, both here and nationally. Most significantly for me is the ongoing contribution to America’s schools, which totals many millions of dollars a year. The corporation can be the “target” for some legitimate criticism (we’ll get to that in a minute), but they are overall a fair employer that offers opportunity to senior citizens, college students seeking part-time work, employment for physically disabled workers, etc.

For me and many others, they have also served as something of an “anti-Walmart” offering the same products, but served up in a more pleasant atmosphere and finding success with far fairer labor practices, both domestically and overseas. Yes, you might be able to buy your gargantuan bottle of laundry soap for 15 cents less at Walmart, but shopping Target lets me feel that my savings isn’t coming at the expense of old workers denied health insurance, women denied advancement opportunities, or small children laboring in third world sweatshops. It’s not that clear-cut, of course, and I’m sure deep probing shows that Target has some questionable ethics, too. Having read a couple of biographies of Sam Walton, though, makes me more than willing to pay a little bit more.

Recently, the rose has started to fade a little for the Target Corporation. The disaster with credit card information being hacked was highly embarrassing, of course, though I suspect we will gradually learn that this kind of thing has been happening to many other (though less prominent) retailers, as well. Target’s reaction to this has been, I think, ethical and honest, and I frankly don’t really fault them for this event.

But other small things about Target are starting to bug me. They’ve tightened the qualifications for offering health insurance to part-time employees, for example, though people in the know tell me that they are helping those employees with the costs of insuring under the Affordable Care Act. Recently I realized that my local Target stores no longer even offer you a choice between paper and plastic bags—as a cost saving move they now will only bag your merchandise in cheaper but environmentally questionable plastic. And the increasingly drone-like business culture of the corporate office has become more obvious. In downtown Minneapolis, the young Target employees sometimes resemble Stepford wives in their uniform appearance and behavior as they mill through the streets at lunch time.

Seriously? Target thinks this is okay?
But the real kicker for me has come in the corporation’s cowardly response to the gun lobby, as rabid gun enthusiasts  poke their fingers in the eyes of the rest of us by carrying their loaded guns into retail Target stores.  In a feeble effort to offend no one whatsoever, the response of Target has been to shiver timidly and say that they will always comply with whatever the local ordinances allow. They could, of course, simply say that guns are not allowed on the premises of Target stores, but because this runs the risk of a possible boycott by gun enthusiasts, they look the other way and blame governments for whatever policies are in place.

Guns carried into retail mass merchandise stores seems like something you’d expect to see in other mass merchandise behemoths, and you now get the feeling that Target is not longer proudly serving as the anti-Walmart, but instead has chosen to emulate the corporation from Bentonville, Arkansas. The story is not yet concluded, fortunately. A recent vote at Target Corporate gave a vote of confidence to the current board of directors, and that gives me hope that they’ll yet double-down on their practice of good citizenship. I'll watch closely.

But I have to tell you, the first time I see somebody wearing a Duck Dynasty ball cap and carrying an assault rifle in my local Target store, my business goes to Costco once and for all.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Citizens of 4F, June 10, 2014

On the 4F bus this morning, I see an unusually large number of Pin-Twit Faces.

The hybrid buses that are now the norm in Minneapolis are configured so the back third of the vehicle is raised above the front, creating the space that houses the huge electric batteries for the bus. When you sit near the front of this rear platform, you can look down majestically on the front 2/3 of the bus and the passengers who sit there.

This morning, at least nine Pin-Twits sitting ahead of me spend the 35-minute bus ride with thumbs in frantic navigation on smart phones, checking their Pinterest, their Twitter, their Facebook feeds and who knows what else. Their free hands usually grip a Starbucks iced coffee, while the opposing thumb goes through frantic calisthenics that amaze me. Social media platforms seem to spring up daily, and I can no longer keep up with them. Our social media person in the marketing department at the office told me recently that Instagram and Google-plus are the coming rage....I have no idea what they are, really,  but the combined arsenal of all the social media platforms is certainly enough to occupy this group on the bus this morning.

I try not to be judgmental about this, but of course can't help myself. I'm now at that age where I sense that personal growth is more about emptying myself of irrelevant data and knowledge to make room for something more meaningful, and I can't help but wonder if in 20 years or so these 20- and-30 something adults might be in the same boat. Is the difference between these young adults and old geezers like me a cultural thing, an age thing, or merely a temperamental difference? Approaching 59 years of age, I'm aware that statistically I will likely be present for perhaps 25 or 35 more of these brief Minnesota springs, and I find myself paying very close attention to them. I can't imagine the appeal of burying myself never-ending Facebook feeds on a smart phone while spring passes me by outside.

But I'm aware that young adults are wired a little differently due to being raised with this technology. My daughter electronically multi-tasks like a bandit, and seems to be entirely well-adjusted and happy in life. She knows far more than I did at that age. And who am I to say that being connected to the entire world is somehow less valid than a narrower connection to the immediate environment? Years ago during one of the NASA missions, I realized that I could pull up a live image of the surface of Mars on my phone whenever I wanted. Certainly there is magic in being connected to the entire world whenever you want. Maybe it's just not my temperament to need or want this.

I have fair amount of digital savvy for an old geezer, but there's no way I could pull off what my daughter does, nor would I want to. There are moments when work pressures force me to be connected to email at all hours, and it's not a good thing for me. Clearly I am constructed to be happier when unconnected; I think this is more true for our generation than for this younger crowd, but perhaps even more for me individually.

Just below me, a young woman has a right thumb of Olympic talent. As I secretly glance over her shoulder, she goes through Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, and several other media platforms, scrolling so fast that the screen is a blur.  Periodically she tries to shut the phone off, but after a few seconds is drawn back to it. At one point, I'm fascinated to see her scroll through at least 50 photos of the British princess. Outside the bus on Bryant Avenue, I see a front garden where a clever gardener has planted Siberian iris among the huge blue leaves of a hosta I recognize as Elegans, thereby creating what appears to be a new species. It is something I might try myself. To me, this is the real thing, but I'm quite sure if I pointed it out to the young woman, she'd see the Princess as a far more relevant thing.

Each to their own, I guess. But I can't help wondering what a 90-year old addicted to social media will look like. Years from now, I suppose our nursing home will be filled with oldsters with huge oversized tablets so that they can study images of a decrepit old Queen of England.