Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Citizens of Sun Country

On my early morning connecting flight, I find myself sitting next to two Somali kids, about 6 years and 8 years of age. The mother sits behind me with two other children, even younger than these two, and she's got her hands full. The little boy sitting in the middle seat next to me is terrifically talkative, and we're not even belted in before I know that this is the very first airplane flight for either of them, that they were born in the US but have never been to Somalia, that his little sister is a genuine pain in his butt, that they are connecting through  to catch a second plane. Others in the family, including a grandmother, are apparently further back in the plane

They want to know everything about every aspect of the flight, so I explain what I can to them, the various sounds they are hearing, what they will feel as they take off, how long the first flight will be (barely time to get up before we'll come down again), and where we are on the map in the back of the airline magazine, where they will be going as they head to Africa. Several times the little girl wants to get out of her seat, but so I have to explain to her  that it's not a good idea, and I point out the seatbelt sign overhead and explains its symbolism.  This keeps her quiet, as she stares intently at the plastic illumination for virtually the whole flight.

The little boy is having trouble with the entertainment system on the seat back ahead of him, so I show him how to plug his earphones into the arm rest (he's brought his own), how to flip the dial on the control to access the various video and audio channels.

"Music," he says. " I would like to listen to music."

"What kind of music do you want?" I say. "They have many channels." I point out on the screen in front of him the options available.

He thinks for several seconds, then lights up. "I would like to hear Johnny Cash," he says. "That would be great."

We do find a country western channel for him, but I fear it will be full of today's western music icons: Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and all the rest. But 20 minutes into the flight suddenly I find a warm, sweaty earbud poked into my left ear. The boy beams up at me as I recognize "Burning Ring of Fire."

"See. Johnny Cash," he says with delight, and pops the earbud out of my ear and stuffs it back into his own. HIs liquid brown eyes twinkle at me.

What a country we live in.

Saturday, May 24, 2014


On the four-hour drive out to the Minnesota/South Dakota border to visit my failing father, the spirit you get from the landscape is one of renewal and rebirth. The middle of May is really just the start of spring in this northern climate, and the grass has just now become fully green, with vast stretches of bright yellow dandelions blanketing many of the fields. The trees are still a very light green because the buds have just opened. In some of the farm feedlots, the Holstein herds have given birth to some of the spring calves, and in the low-lying marsh areas, Canadian geese are already leading goslings around the shallows.

On higher ground, farmers driving $150,000 John Deere tractors have begun planting their fertile fields; here and there faint rows of seedling corn, sugar beets and soy beans have begun to sprout.

Look objectively, though, and you notice that it’s not all greenness and rebirth and fertility. On another field, a different farmer is plowing under the decaying, rotting stalks of last year’s corn crop, recycling the once-living organic material.  In the marshes, it is the decaying residue of cattails and marsh grasses where red wing blackbirds choose to nest. Every mile or so, some kind of creature killed by traffic is heaped on the shoulder of the highway—sometimes identifiable as a white tail deer or raccoon, but sometimes so battered and bloody that you can’t even tell what species you’re looking at. There are some farms dying too. Some farms are amazingly wealthy, but other places have been abandoned, with buildings that are falling in upon themselves. Graveyards of old tractors and threshing machines can be spotted rusting away in shelter belts of trees surrounding old farmsteads.  As a final reminder, it is Memorial Day weekend, and most of the tiny towns along the route have placed flags and banner spotlighting the local civic cemeteries, honoring the war dead.

At first, the recognition of how much death and decay exists alongside the fertility of spring is a little depressing to me, perhaps because of the nature of my visits with Dad these days. But then I begin to relax philosophically, and come to realize how natural it is for decay to exist alongside rebirth. They do go hand in hand, really, and in the words of Ecclesiastes (or the Byrds), there is a time for every purpose under heaven. 

It’s a little harder to keep this in mind when I reach the rest home in Hendricks Minnesota at midday. The feeling here in the hospice unit of the nursing home is of the human condition deep in late autumn, with the days of winter just around the corner. Spring is a long, long way off here in the inner halls of a modern American nursing home. It’s hard to avoid the recognition that these are places  where many of the elderly and sick come to die, and for the first hour or so, it’s pretty hard to feel anything but the spirit of demise here.

Dad is asleep in his chair when I arrive, doesn’t stir when I rub his arm and speak to him.  I let him sleep and just watch him, letting it be enough just to be present.  His breathing is labored, and periodically his arms and shoulders twitch and slightly convulse. His arms and shoulders have become quite bony and thin, but his calves and angles are puffy with edema. His overall color is becoming more ashen. But his hair is neatly combed, and even now has more dark than grey in it. He is cleanly shaven; he still does this himself each morning. Dad was always pretty meticulous about his personal grooming, a guy who would shower and shave before bed. And the only guy I ever knew who would scrub off the bottom of a lawn mower after each mowing.

But it’s a somber scene, frankly, and I have trouble seeing the “circle of life” at work here the way I did out on the open farm country. All I see is the nadir of that circle. But when Dad wakes up and sees me, a smile of recognition breaks across his face. Over the course of the next two hours, Dad is “present” some of the time, but often drifts off to a different place. “Who’s picking me up today?” he asks one minute, even though he’s not been any other place for many weeks now, and won’t go anywhere ever again. But then the next minute he’s asking me about my business travel, where I’ve been recently and where my next trip will take me. He asks about my kids, about my wife, asks if they ever found that jetliner in the south Pacific. Then he tells me that yesterday he took a tour bus ride down the St. Croix river with old Navy buddies. I don't disabuse him of the notion. These days, there's no particular harm in allowing dream/fantasy to encroach a little. The bus tour seems to have been a lot of fun.

Then I hear young laughter out in the hallway, and I look up to see two little grandchildren visiting their grandma in a nearby room. I glance outside Dad’s window to see wrens nesting in the bush outside. And on my father’s bulletin board is pinned a picture of my own kids, young adults now, a snap shot that was taken with my father when they took it upon themselves to drive four hours and visit him a few weeks ago.

The fact that my dad has lived his live, and lived it well, that is the reason I am here, and by extension it’s the reason my kids are here too.  To live, to exist on the planet, is also to die. You don’t get one without the other. So in a strange but real way, life and death are exactly the same thing.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Citizens of 4F: May 22, 2014

Danno is never, ever a passenger on the 4F morning commuter bus into downtown Minneapolis, but he is one of our citizens just the same. For a couple of years now, we've see him three or four times a month walking along the west-side sidewalk of Lyndale Avenue  between 26th St. and Franklin Avenue at 6:30 or 7:00 am.  He’s a young man somewhere between 25 and 30 years of age, short in height and quite thin. His ethnic background seems rooted in the south Pacific—you see traces of Polynesia, Samoa or maybe the Philippines in his features.

This stretch of Minneapolis is a transition zone between well-kept turn-of-the-century single family homes of south Minneapolis and the downtown proper. It’s a stretch of mostly apartment buildings, some of them run-down enough to bring the term “tenement” to mind. This is a relative term, though. People in real cities like Chicago or St. Louis would be amused that we see this stretch of Minneapolis as a gritty segment of inner city. It is by no means a slum. The people who live here are a mixed group. Some are young adults who like living between the action of downtown and the trendiness of the Uptown district. Some are students commuting to the downtown community vocational college or the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.  A few, though, are folks living more on the fringe of the mainstream, young men and women who have dropped out by choice or by circumstance. 

Most mornings, a quick glance at Danno suggests that he lives more on the fringe. Usually he’s weary, unshaven, irritable in demeanor. His beard brings to mind early Bruce Springsteen, but unintentionally so. You get the sense most days that 7:00 am is the end of his evening, not the start of his day, and “disheveled” is the term that usually comes to mind when you spot Danno in the early morning. He stands out because he's unusual in that regard. 

Not always, though, because Danno is a mercurial character. I’ve also seen him on mornings where he carries books under his arm while striding purposefully along the early morning pavement. One day, he was carrying a gleaming steel coffee mug in one hand and a copy of the New York Times tucked under the other elbow, and could have been a young professional enjoying the early morning before showering and heading to a downtown office.

Today, though, Danno was in a borderline state, and he was in trouble. Heading north along Lyndale Avenue, he could not walk straight, and his manner suggested more than mere alcohol inebriation. He was wearing black Converse tennis shoes, green camouflage military trousers rolled up to mid calf, and a dark grey tank top T-shirt not at all appropriate for the 40-degree morning. While walking, he looked into the sky in confusion a couple of times, weaved once onto the lawn of an apartment building, compensated and stumbled onto the grassy boulevard between sidewalk and street. It’s very hard to say what was happening with him, though he looked to me like people I've seen under heavy, dangerous doses of major-league hallucinogens. 

Then one of those sensory portraits presented itself that I knew was going to stick in my mind for a while. As the bus passed by, Danno stumbled along the sidewalk, and fell hard headfirst into the trunk of a flowering crab apple tree that had blanketed the sidewalk and boulevard with a thick quilt of its flower petals, a layer of blossoms so bright in the morning sun that the colors hurt your eyes. 

Danno seemed not to be seriously hurt, and too confused to even be embarrassed. He momentarily tried to get back to his feet, but then surrendered to whatever alien force was surging through his veins and brain synapses, and curled up in a partial fetal pose on the ground His right arm, bent at the elbow, supported his head and neck, a posture of sleep. The young man's  legs and hip were on the sidewalk, his torso and upper body sprawled onto the grassy boulevard, and his dark skin and clothes were in striking contrast to the bed of pale magenta flowers on which he lay. Passersby sidestepped him while pretending not to see the anomaly.  

As we passed by, the signature to this portrait came as a whiff of flowering apple perfume cascaded through the open window of the bus.  

It was all disturbingly, ironically, beautiful. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Normal, Human Story

To the many millions of on-line readers who have fretted about the recent dearth of creative output from Mercurious, the Professor, and the other Geezers...

...many apologies.

In the case of myself (Mercurious), I have to admit being badly blocked in recent weeks, probably because I've been preoccupied with the terminal illness of my father. (How's that for a downer? I know you were probably wishing for smart-ass social commentary of a light-hearted nature. Instead, this is what you get.) When something is constantly on your mind, it's hard to write about other things, and up to now I haven't felt at all like writing about something so difficult and immediate as a pending death in the family. Those of you who are "of an age" like the Geezers undoubtedly know exactly what I'm talking about. Most of you have dealt with aging parents, I'm sure.

A couple of months ago, my Dad had a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer added to some other debilitating conditions, and we're now in a waiting game as this especially ferocious form of cancer follows its natural course. At 82 years of age and in already in great frailty, he's already outlived the medical expectation for this diagnosis. No treatment is even being attempted.

For a little while, there was something almost sweet about the whole process, as Dad was entirely lucid for a good length of time after the diagnosis, and knowing the end was coming gave us a chance to say everything that needed to be said, to reminisce about the best of our family history, to say goodbyes in as many ways as was necessary. Dad never wanted to spend many years declining in a nursing home (we'd been through that with my grandfather, his own father, and Dad surely did not want that for himself). So he was actually pretty relieved to know that pancreatic cancer generally takes people rather quickly, especially when they are already compromised the way he is, and there was a period of painless relaxation for a few weeks after the diagnosis.

That period is now ending, and the hard end-game is beginning, I think. Dad's lucid periods are now shorter, with late afternoons and evenings now giving way to confusion about where he is and what's happening. We're told this is the result of toxins beginning to build up in his system, as liver and kidneys begin to function more and more erratically.  During his clear periods, more and more often what he expresses now is "I wish this was over."

And we wish it was over, too, though that's hard to admit. Who wants to openly say they wish a family member would pass? Partly this is about wishing for an end to the suffering of a beloved family member. But in perfect honesty and with less nobility, what family members also wish for is an end to the angst we experience ourselves during this vigil period. It's very hard to watch, and selfishly we wish we didn't have to watch it any longer. And nobody really knows right now if we'll watch it for another four hours or another four months.

It's sometimes said that the human spirit is tenacious. At the moment, I'm not sure that's really accurate. Dad's spirit is quite ready to move on, but what's tenacious is his hard-wired biology holding on. This is a guy who never took a sick day in 30 years of teaching school, and that pattern is showing now. I'm generally a decided romantic when it comes to a belief in the ethereal, transcendent nature of the human spirit and will. But what I see right now is biology taking precedent over spirit, in a way that you wouldn't expect. It's biology, not spirit, that's clinging to life.

This is just a normal human story. It's not particularly tragic when an aging parent passes after leading a good, long life. And Dad's life has been one that was lived very well, with steadfast honesty and good intent. But it's also part of the normal human story for there to be pain and difficulty around the process of dying. That's where we are at the moment.