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 28, 2015

Holiday Cheers....

Please welcome back "Since George Shaw," who offers this rather strange "holiday" offering taken from real life....

Here's a little tale that may bring Christmas joy to those of you who have experienced unpleasant divorces:

When my wife Maureen was an undergraduate, her roommate was Eileen, a very dorky girl. One night they go to a party, and who should be there but Sheldon, Maureen's high school classmate, a very serious fellow and also dorky. Maureen introduces them. Dork-match from heaven; they marry, become good friends of ours, move to Madison for grad school, and have two kids. Maureen and I shake our heads about the prospects of their kids growing up normal, given that Sheldon is a librarian and Eileen a construction worker, but we keep it to ourselves.

Fast forward a few years - Eileen bites hard into the Jesus thing, and divorce is unavoidable given that Sheldon enjoys a beer now and then. A nasty divorce with a bitter custody dispute. Apparently, both are counseled by their respective attorneys to provide documentation as to their being the better parent, and both request the testimony of their mutual friend, who happens to be an elementary school teacher. Maureen, in one of the dumbest things she has ever done (next to marrying me) says yes to both. Her objective testimony then sets out each parent's strengths and weaknesses. Eileen gets custody (surprise-surprise). Needless to say, we haven't spoken to either of them since.

Until, fast forward another thirty-plus years, we get a call yesterday from Sheldon, in town to visit his dying mother. Maureen is on her way out of the house, but Sheldon and I have a long chat, catching up on old times. Eventually, I brag about our 5 grandkids. Sheldon claims he has 5, except 2 are step-grandkids from his current wife (another librarian), and 2 are foster-kids that Sheldon's daughter is trying to adopt. So I win, right?

Then Sheldon plays his trump card. His one biological grandchild, his daughter's 8 year old son, is named Sheldon. I ask how Eileen took this. Sheldon says, "Well, I never talk to her, but I understand she cried for a month."

Thursday, December 24, 2015

It's Minnesota, not Mars

"I'm not completely sure, but I think St. Paul is over there someplace." 
For the rest of the world and most Americans, few places on the North American continent are more anonymous than Minnesota. Certainly Europeans and Asians have little sense of where we're located. This in itself is not surprising: if somebody asked me where the Qinghai province of China is, I'd certainly have to glance at a map to tell you.

But a typical European has rough idea of where Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City is located, but is utterly mystified by the idea of Minneapolis. I've run into an occasional well-read Londoner who knows of the "Twin Cities," but when I've explained that we're located a full 8-hour car ride north of Chicago, they get wide-eyed and are convinced that this must very nearly be the North Pole. Once a native Londoner,  upon learning where I hailed from, congratulated me on getting away from the snow and ice. This was in early August, and when I told him that the temperature back home was currently 35 degrees C,  he would not immediately believe me.

The lack of geographic awareness of Minnesota is so pronounced that I have practiced a standard answer with foreigners:  "Right in the center of the country, up against Canada, and just to the left of the Big Lakes." Then there's  a nod of recognition. I have had people know where Green Bay, Wisconsin is located, but are entirely baffled by Minneapolis. The only place more anonymous: Nebraska.

Here's the notion most world citizens have of Minnesota, if they know of us at all.
Yes, this is a Minnesota
thing. Don't ask. 

• It's cold.
• It's a wilderness.
• It's home to the largest shopping mall in the world.
• It's a cultural backwater, the place where Fargo was filmed.

These are all only partial truths. It is bitterly cold in the winter, but the summers are in fact unpleasantly hot and humid. The wilderness areas are confined, really, to the top 25% of the state, though a rare wolf or black bear may roam down here occasionally. The Mall of America is no longer the largest in the world, though it's damn big, as evidenced by the travel junkets that fly here from Japan, China, etc. just to shop there.

And its not nearly as rough-hewn culturally as most people think. There are fine museums and restaurants here; very good dramatic theater. When a sales director, a snooty French woman,  visited us in Minneapolis, she was frankly amazed. She expected to find us motoring around in snowmobiles and pickup trucks,  going to bingo tournaments for entertainment—not creating highly acclaimed productions of The Tempest at the Guthrie Theater. (Actually, for the pickup trucks and bingo tournaments, you have to cross the river to St. Paul. )

Oh yeah, I know these people. 
Other Americans are similarly a little mystified by Minnesota. The recent season of the Fargo TV drama has the characters trotting between Fargo, North Dakota; Brainerd, Minnesota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; the Black Hills; and Laverne Minnesota—much the way Californians bop around the San Fernando Valley. These locations are hundreds of miles apart and such random travel is impossible. It's possible, though, that this plotting is a sly joke on the part of the Coen brothers, executive producers of the television series and directors of the original movie. Raised in a Minneapolis suburb, you could easily imagine this plotting flaw as part of their joke.

Fargo did a much better job in coaching the actors to accurately mimic the Minnesooohhtta accent. We do squeeze our vowels with great ferocity, especially as you go further north. When I travel abroad, people very often suspect I'm Canadian.

Right. Hit the road, Mitt. 
But nowhere is the ignorance of Minnesota more evident than when political candidates visit here to campaign.  Many of the Democrats seem to have a basic understanding of who we are, probably because of the legacy of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Eugene McCarthy, and now Al Franken. If they show up—as Hillary did last week—they typically dress like professionals, as they would if they were visiting Chicago or LA. If they go casual, as Obama sometimes does when he visits, it's realistic casual—open collar, perhaps button-down shirt rolled up at the sleeves.

But the Republicans, they have no clue who we are. When Mitt Romney visited, he invariably wore preppy loafers and crisp oxford shirts starched severely, and designer jeans pressed so hard the creases could cut flesh.

Cruz and Trump, caught just a moment before they kissed.
With tongue. 
Even worse was Ted Cruz's visit this past week. He chose to come to Rochester, Minnesota in a yellow plaid flannel shirt—a kind of lumberjack ensemble—but with one with a decidedly Texas/western cut to the fabric.  It was utterly silly, and showed that he understood Minnesota not at all.

You see, if there's one thing that Minnesota can't stand, it's Texas. We don't even like the idea of Texas. While Minnesota has its share of feisty individualists, our brand is understated, almost mute, and we have no time at all for the kind of silly bragging that Texans practice routinely. You betcha, he's kinda a goofy fella, he is, ya see.

Mostly, though, it's because Texas is home to the Dallas Cowboys football team, who, along with the New England Patriots, are the most hated sports franchises in all of Minnesota. For us, Jimmy Jones is the anti-christ. Ted Cruz has no chance here.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Starbucks & Tupperware

We're happy to welcome back Sehr Wenig to these pages. We're hoping she will return often with insights learned as she regains her health. 

I'm heading home for a lengthy holiday visit with my grown children, my granddaughter and my parents. It will be the last trip home before a major eight-hour surgery in January to combat the Big C. After waiting through a long, long Starbucks line at LAX early this morning, I quietly picked up the tab for the young woman behind me in line. As soon as she understood what was happening, the young woman began demurring. “Oh, no. I’m fine. I can pay for my own.”

When she finally understood that I wanted nothing other than to say Merry Christmas, she accepted her Grande Earl Grey tea but remained visibly uncomfortable. A moment later, she brightened just as visibly and said, “I was going over there to get water. Can I bring you one?”


The workplace team I lead held our annual holiday gathering/white elephant gift exchange a few days ago. At the end, as everyone was beginning to tidy up, someone said, "Oh, wait. There's one more gift," and handed me a lovely gift box. Which turned out to be an empty foil pan.

Other people began pulling wrapped gifts from under their chairs and handing them to me. More people streamed into the room, each carrying a gift. Each gift box or bag held an empty food container, many decorated with words like, "Made with cancer-fighting nutrients...and Love," or "Chemo-fighting fuel."

By the second gift, I realized what they were doing and sobbed through unwrapping the rest—which took nearly 20 minutes.

My team, other people from our company, and a slew of former employees have organized themselves to provide meals for the entire time of my convalescence. They have investigated my Pinterest food boards, talked to my daughter, and discussed what foods I enjoy when we go out or order in. They made a group Google doc and calendar.

I could not stop crying. It was one of the sweetest, most humbling things I've ever experienced. The kindness and thoughtfulness and genuine effort overwhelmed me. My first coherent thoughts afterward were about how I could repay their kindness.


“I was going over there to get water. Can I bring you one?”

The young woman will never know it, but she gave me something far more valuable than a bottle of water. She revealed that my practice for the coming months will need to be a little different than hers—that I'll need to accept kindness without need to "make things even."

The time for paying it forward will come. For now, my task is to accept with gratitude.

It’s not an easy task, but the important ones never are.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Donald Takes Another Dump

You'd be mad, too, if your hair dye kept bleeding down
and staining your face orange. 
The scariest thing about Donald Trump isn't his right-wing ideology, or his xenophobic principles, nor even the fact that he's a liar.  The scariest thing about Donald Trump is the obvious fact that a: he is stupid, and b: a notable segment of America is rallying around a stupid man as their hero.

Trump's stupidity is self-evident, even if you do nothing more than listen to his speeches and interviews. His misuse of language and grammar, his imprecision of word choice, his butchery of idioms, is the stuff of a poorly read seventh grader. He said the other day, repeatedly, that closing our borders to Muslims could be "quick." What he was he was trying to say was, not that a closure could be enacted quickly, but that the duration of the closure might be "short-lived"  or "temporary."

Another quote from an interview on MSNB a few days ago;  "We have to get a hand around a very serious problem. And it's getting worse. And you will have more World Trade Centers and you will have more, bigger than the World Trade Center if we don't toughen up, smarten up, and use our heads." The man talks like a 12-year old trying to bluff his way when the civics teacher calls on him after he was just caught napping.

Here is a recent statement he read aloud, speaking of himself in the third-person:  "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on." He's now repeating this absurd idea once every hour or so in the days since.

Trump's ignorance of current events is obvious, of course, but he's also stupid on simple common sense levels. In practical terms, how would it even be possible to do what Trump proposes? Nowhere on any passport is there any identification of religious affiliation. And it's not like people carry religious identity cards that can be screened at airport security. There is no way, really, to distinguish between a visitor from Turkey or Ethiopia who is Christian from one who is Muslim. Any person of even average intelligence could have deduced the dumbness of the idea just by thinking for a few minutes. (What is unspoken, of course, is the real message: Trump and his fearful white mob would really like to close America to brown people. Period. Brown people scare this bunch. )

And Trump genuinely does not understand the danger he poses here: by posing this as a religious war between all Muslims and the rest of the world, he is doing exactly what ISIS wants—making Muslims feel alienated from the rest of the world. Here's a fact: ISIS would love to see Donald J. as president. I wonder if the crowds in South Carolina have considered that.

Can you imagine this delivering the State of the Union address?
Mind you, it's not a given that a dumb president can't be an effective leader, or that a smart president will automatically be successful.  Ronald Reagan was no genius, but some would acknowledge him as a good leader. And he seems to have at least been smart enough to pick advisors who handled things capably while he took lengthy naps each afternoon. George W. was obviously dim and he also picked horrendous advisors, but he was not as dangerously stupid as Trump. And a couple of very smart presidents—Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama—were disappointing as presidential leaders. In fact, of notably smart presidents in the last 50 years who were also successful leaders, the list might stop at Bill Clinton.

But no candidate I can remember in recent times combined Trump's ignorant stupidity with an equal measure of out-of-control ego. George W knew in his heart-of-hearts that he wasn't the sharpest blade in the political cutlery drawer. Donald J. Trump, on the other hand, is too dumb to understand that he's dumb. Any man who continually brags about his wealth is actually worthless, and the one who repeatedly proclaims his brilliance is anything but. We all see it, but Donald does not.

This latest foolishness has some people saying that Trumps candidacy has jumped the shark, that Ted Cruz' recent advances in the Iowa polls are the beginning of the end for Trump's comedy of errors. (Cruz has his own baggage, the insanity of which is unfortunately being hidden by the even greater outrageousness of Trump). But don't write the Donald off just yet. His minions are just too numerous and too rabid to ignore. There is something almost predestined in the absurdity of what is unfolding here, a political fate that Americans have earned as result of their worship at the church of celebrity.

Hillary Clinton must be rubbing her hands with glee. Without Trump in the race, there are at least three GOP candidates who could likely win.  But with Trump in the race, either as the GOP candidate or as a Ross Perot-style independent,  Hillary wins in a landslide. We hope.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A deranged bird saved my life

Welcome back our talented guest geezer Sehr Wenig, the only female geezer to have graced these pages. Sehr writes today on a sobering subject that sooner or later touches the lives of most Geezers and their loved ones. Please wish Sehr well as she begins her medical journey. I, for one, am placing my bet on her. 

A deranged bird saved my life.

So did the dashing on a stucco wall on the building next door.

And my friendship with a Geezer I’ve considered my brother for more than a decade.

Some credit must be given to the fine and compassionate doctors and nurses and technicians caring for me now, but without that bird and that stucco and that brother, it may have been too late for their miracles.

Mine is not the kind of lump women are typically warned about, but a gradual thickening, a change in the density of the right margins of my right breast. The weirdness made itself apparent in early August, but I convinced myself it was merely my imagination run amok.

Daily inspections whispered a truth I wasn’t ready to hear – loud enough to make me check every day but quiet enough I could pretend not to hear.

I took to wearing a bra 24 hours a day, leaving one on the edge of the tub while showering so I could cover the developing dimple beneath my nipple before I faced the mirror to brush my teeth each morning.

And then a bird began beating itself to death against my bedroom windows.

Day after day, before the sun rose, that bird flew into the windows above my bed – over and over and over. I asked friends and colleagues how to stop its slow suicide, but no one knew how to help. One morning I moved to the second bedroom to escape the relentless thwacking, but the bird moved with me -- the one and only time it flew into any window other than the one above my bed.

About 10 days into the bird’s mysterious assault upon itself, I glanced out the window above my shower, contemplating the bird and its neurotic mission. There, shaped into the dashing of the stucco on the next building, stood the letters, WTF.

How could a contractor ignore such an obvious sign, I wondered as I slipped on my bra and turned to the mirror to brush my teeth.

Some weeks later, the bra was no longer enough to silence the thwacking of my own head against the ever-more transparent truth.

I called my brother to confess my fears. Exactly as expected, he urged me to go to the doctor. Exactly as expected, I edged closer to taking action. Leaving myself in fearful limbo was one thing; stranding him there with me was something quite different.

As the bird beat itself against the window the very next morning, I called my doctor. While the receptionist set up an appointment within the hour, the bird departed.

That first appointment set off a firestorm of tests and visits during which very kind professionals poked and prodded and scanned my breast from every angle. Ten days later, a biopsy confirmed my deepest fears, and we began making a treatment plan. I have every reason to believe that plan will be successful.

The bird has not returned.

WTF remains.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Good News....and Bad News

Just when I had fully relaxed into the fact the middle age is drawing to close and old age is about to begin,  a complication arose.

At the dentist's office I ran into an extended survey in a waiting room magazine that tells me that based on lifestyle and general health and outlook questions, I'm effectively not quite 55 years old instead of nearly 60, as my driver's license believes.  

I truly don't know what to do.

This computation is based on an elaborate, multi-page survey. Wanting to know the complete dirty truth, I was fully, brutally honest in answering.  I was forthright  about my weight (which is fine if I was 6 ft. 3" tall; unfortunately I'm 5 ft 8"), and about the fact that my cholesterol and blood pressure are on the high side. I was ruthlessly honest about the red meat I eat too often, and about the fact that I have a nasty sweet tooth. I 'fessed up to my occasional insomnia, my allergies, the arthritis beginning to make my toes and ankles ache.

I was brutally honest about every last thing they asked.

But it appears I have enough healthy habits to more than compensate for these vices. I checked off the smallest option for number of alcoholic drinks per day above zero (on average, about one or two glasses of good Scotch per week). It appears, now, that a little bit of imbibing is considered better for you than none at all.  I spend 15 or so days a month in the YMCA pool or exercise room, and walk perhaps an additional 10 or 15 miles a week. The daily regimen includes 45 minutes of meditation, which the surveyors apparently like very much. Early to bed early to rise seems to be a plus. My work stress has taken a large turn downward—that alone probably reduced my age by a year or so. The last loved one lost to disease was now more than a year ago, not front and center in my outlook on life.  And my fondness for a good cheeseburger is apparently neutralized by the nuts, grains, and vegetables I happily eat.

Now, although it's not a terrible thing to actually be younger than I am, it does leave me with a dilemma. I was very much looking forward to the many senior citizen discounts I  become eligible for when I turn 60 years old next month.  I don't lie easily, and if I say I am 60 when in reality I'm effectively only 55,  I'm sure to get busted. I can imagine now the teller at the movie theater who, when I ask for a senior ticket, frowns and asks to see the result of my US News & World Report age survey. 

I must be careful not to regress any further, as might happen if I lose some weight. That was a goal of mine as I enter semi-retirement, but now I'm not so sure. I'd rather not have to send back my AARP membership card. Maybe if I drink a lot more Scotch, it will balance out a weight loss. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Human Wound

I recently came upon this small bit of writing from several years ago ago while cleaning out some digital file folders. Most bits of writing one discovers during such housekeeping is utterly disposable and you're well advised to snuff out all the 1's and 0's that form them, lest somebody come upon them and recognize that most of your writing is clumsy indeed.  But this one I decided to save for a little longer, at least until the next digital purging. I don't recall what prompted the writing of this. Sometimes words come from places you can't quite identify. 

I’ve come to believe that the quality that distinguishes humans from other living creatures is not "intelligence," but rather the fact that we are the one creature who is consciously aware of a woundedness, a sore spot, a mortal tenderness that is the source of both all our pain and ultimately our joy. Other living creatures, though subject to the same natural pains and laws of physics, remain blessedly unaware of the nature of the mortal wound, and hence do not suffer or rejoice in quite the same way as do conscious humans. The dawning awareness of this woundedness, this tender spot, is represented culturally and spiritually by many images: the fall from grace, expulsion from Eden, entrapment in samsara: all are mythological symbols of the sting that ensues when a conscious mind recognizes its essential mortality, its woundedness. 

How we respond to our wound governs the quality of our lives, in the end. It determines if we remain trapped in dreariness, or find at-one-ment of some kind.  The traditional path of a life is to attempt to cover up our mortality, to hide it from others and even ourselves. In anger and fear, we try to plate over our mortal wound with thick layers of costuming and personality and neurosis, trying to keep others from seeing it and trying to forget about it ourselves. 

We go to war to protect our wound. Our civilizations are largely structured around the effort to hide the wound. Our technologies evolve, in part, as efforts to defeat the wound. We dress in fancy clothes and dwell in palaces to distract ourselves away from the wound. Though all these are common strategies, they don't make for a very pleasant way to live.  It is a happy occasion to wake up from this condition and see the reality.

Fortunately, the wound is inherent in us, and cannot be avoided forever, even if we wanted to.  Clear seeing will eventually show you the truth of this. Knowing the woundedness, accepting the wound and working with it is a sign of our evolution, our consciousness. To hide from the pain, on the other hand, is to live a life of non-truth. And to do this may even be to live an evil life, for virtually all evil acts are strategies to hide from pain or to push it onto others that we might pretend that it doesn't belong to us. 

We are lucky that we can’t hide forever from the truth, and a genuine glimpse of our own mortal wound is what offers us the opportunity to change, to awaken. To awaken and feel the wound after a long period of hiding is something to celebrate. Some day, you may well come to realize that the moments of greatest trauma were also your moments of greatest awakening.

Sometimes through luck, sometimes with help, you may find that there is another way to respond to the knowledge of our wound. We do not have to hide, we do not need to defend. We can acknowledge the wound, accept it, live gladly with it even. We can tenderly care for our own wound, and treat the tender spots in others with equal compassion and empathy. We can respond to it with good nature, with irony and humor and understanding. Sometimes this is the path of the artists who live to articulate the experience of our human woundedness; the mystics who lived and died with compassion for the wounded; the saints who care for the universal wound. And there's a bit of this trait found in every good soul you’ve known. They are aware of the wound and are caring for it in themselves and others. 

Perhaps you have known people who live this way routinely, or maybe you've begun to  discover it for yourself: It is when we are confronted with the indisputable and unavoidable truth of our woundedness that a conscious, free life begins.

The happiest people I’ve ever known are those most aware of the tender wound in themselves and others. They ache for other people, and with them.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Considering Enjoyment

As semi-retirement draws closer, I've settled on an intended routine that will have me working "for pay" from about 7:00 am to 1:00 pm, with my afternoons free to pursue other things. Almost invariably when I mention this plan to colleagues, friends, neighbors, they respond by wanting to know what I'm going to do with that time. By which they want to know what my goal is, what I plan to accomplish with that free time.

"Ah, so you'll have time to write a novel or two."

"So you could volunteer time with the schools or Red Cross."

"I imagine you might want to go back to photography as a serious hobby."

"You can get serious about a monetized blog or web site."

"Remodel your bathroom/refinish your floors/rebuild your deck/pour new steps for the front entry."

"If grandkids come soon, you can be their day care provider."

Now, it's possible I will do some or even all of those things; all of them are on the list of things I might like to to do. But when these questions come up or suggestions are offered, I remain non-committal, nodding vaguely and saying I haven't decided yet. Because I'd secretly like to give an answer that would strike people as a little unusual, even disappointing.

"I'd like to practice enjoyment."

Enjoyment is a somewhat alien concept in American culture. We are champions of accomplishment, of material acquisition, of achieving tangible goals. On some level we are even champions of hedonistic pleasure, which is kind of the shadow side of the drive to accomplishment. In this country, we tend to pursue pleasure with the same exhausting frenzy as we pursue a workplace promotion. Americans can sometimes even be identified as champions of "fun," which in our culture seems to be defined as a kind of heart-pounding frenzy.

But hedonistic pleasure and fun, as we know it are not the same as enjoyment, I think.

The etymology of the word is hazy and a little imprecise:

Enjoyment: the act of experiencing joy
Enjoy: the experience of joy
Joy: the emotion of delight or happiness by experiencing something good or satisfying.

All of this seems to derive originally from the Greek gaio, which means "to rejoice," so finding a definition is a cyclical exercise the solution for which remains a little elusive.  But in any case the quality of enjoyment seems a bit different that what we normally call fun or pleasure. It's a quieter quality, a bit more contemplative, perhaps.

And simple enjoyment is something we're not all that familiar with, in general—not in American society. Other cultures seem better at it. During a recent trip to Italy, I saw a lot of enjoyment all around me, though admittedly much less accomplishment (Italians are notoriously inefficient). Europeans in general seem to be better at enjoyment; the entire month of August seems to be when everybody goes on holiday and practices pure enjoyment. In China, you can pretty much give up on meeting any kind of manufacturing deadline during the entire month around the New Year celebration—everybody is enjoying themselves. And it's also in China where it's pretty much standard practice for people to leave the work force at age 55 or so,  and for them to then seek simple enjoyment. They become family elders, mentor grandchildren,  go to the public parks to practice Tai Chi or play games with their friends. Who knew those commies could be so wise?

It's interesting to realize that enjoyment can be present even in the absence of pleasure or even fun. The enemy of enjoyment is resistance of any kind, and lack of resistance is quite conducive to enjoyment. You can enjoy almost anything simply by relaxing fully into whatever experience is present. A traffic jam can be enjoyed if you settle into listening to music or thinking sly thoughts about pretty girls. Suffering from the flu, you can either fight against the experience, or you can enjoy it in a kind of perverse way by curling up in a blanket in front of the fireplace, with a cup of hot soup while watching favorite old movies.

So enjoyment seems to me partly about abandoning the pushing and pulling that typically dominates life, relinquishing the effort to turn current circumstances into something different. Enjoyment, as distinct from pleasure-seeking, seems to be based more on satisfaction in, and with, the status quo.

I don't know that I'll be able to pull this off readily. I'm the product of a Lutheran midwestern
upbringing in which the dinner hour was hugely rushed in order to get back outside to do farming/yardwork/snowshoveling. My father was a guy who after each lawn-mowing turned the machine upside down and scrubbed it clean of green stains using a stiff brush. Pure life enjoyment doesn't come naturally to me.

But the next time somebody asks what I'm going to do with my free time in semi-retirement?

"I'm going to practice enjoyment."

With enough practice, I might even get good at it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Overheard: October 23, 2015

In an office building in downtown Minneapolis on the way up to my optometrist's office, there are two young men from some country in far southeastern Europe or far western Eurasia riding upward with me on a very slow-moving elevator. The inflection of their voices remind me a little of the old Steve Martin/Dan Akroyd "Wild & Crazy Guys" bit, though they are speaking in their native tongue, not English. They are in their mid to late 20s, and my hunch is that they hail from someplace like Moldova or Bulgaria, or maybe even someplace on the other side of the Black Sea. I cannot place the language, but is is definitely not Russian or Polish—it's more unusual than that. They talk to one another quietly in deference to my presence, but with great restrained animation. I cannot understand any of the words—except for a notable phrase that pops up out of the middle of nowhere.

"Ce crezi că am făcut aseară? Am băut vodcă și pastile gobbled. E ceea ce fac mereu. Și băiatul, nu am plăti prețul. Ar fi trebuit să urmat sfatul: "JUST SAY NO ."Това е, когато разбрах, че току-що мойш си грозна сестра."

"Ha ha ha ha ah.  Ha ha ha ha ha."  Both young men laugh heartily, but with attempts to stifle it out of consideration to another elevator passenger not in on the joke.

Then the second one responds. "Невероятно. Това е, което аз осъзнах прекалено-I е трябвало да заяви JUST SAY NO. Когато погледнах надолу и осъзнах, майка вашият ме минет Без да си протези."

More peals of muffled laughter, while they looked sideways at me with some sheepishness.

Americans need to be very careful. Thirty years after the fact, this ridiculous "just say no" catch-phrase from Nancy Reagan's ill-advised and vicious war on drugs is still circulating around in the conversation of young Eurasian men. I feel a little morose to see that this, of all things, is a piece of American culture that has persisted in the larger world. I hope against all odds that I don't now hear "thousand points of light" come out of their mouths.

And then I recall some of the recent sound bites from Donald Trump, and I begin to feel quite ill over what might infect the world in the near future.

Friday, October 23, 2015

A Geezer in the Wilds of Turkey

Please welcome back one of our favorite Guest Geezers, "Since George Shaw."  George is one of the most adventurous and well traveled Geezers I know, so please enjoy this essay, prompted by Mercurious' recent reflection on business trip travel.  George beautifully articulates the kind of adventure awaiting Geezers willing to set aside their American fearfulness and just do it.  

Recently, I was chatting with an old friend, when the topic of travel plans came up. Dewey shared that his wife had been trying to talk him into one of those Viking River Boat Cruises on the Rhine River, next Spring/Summer, but he had finally nixed the idea because of the "dangerous unrest" in Europe these days. This conversation, and Mercurious' recent story about (sort of) getting lost (sort of) in the Black Forest, reminded me of my wife and I getting lost in Turkey a few years ago.

For some reason (I'm not descended from Turks, or speak the language, or anything), I had always wanted to visit Istanbul. So we flew into Istanbul, spent a few days there(it's delightful), and then rented a car (a crappy Ford Fiesta) to drive around Turkey for two weeks - no reservations or set itinerary, just knocking around the way one might knock around the American West. It was early April. As it turns out, the tourist seasons starts May 1 - we didn't know, so a few things weren't open yet, but at least we avoided the crowds. 

Generally, the experience was wonderful. The roads were about as good as Minnesota roads, but with only 10% the traffic (outside of Istanbul). Navigation was a little tricky; this was before GPS. Not that I use GPS anyway—I'm a map guy (real maps, that fold up). We had 3 maps, one brought from home, one purchased there, and one provided by the rental car company. And they almost never matched. Sometimes we failed to find a particular ruin we were looking for, and stumbled on a different one instead.

So one afternoon, we were driving on a nice, two-lane, blacktop road in the Capadocia region in central Turkey (see photo at left) headed for a town where we hoped to find a hotel, when we spotted a sign with a symbol we had come to recognize as a scenic lookout. Without consulting my spouse, I made an executive decision and turned down a gravel road in search of promised scenic lookout. There was an inch or so of snow on the ground, from the night before, but the gravel road seemed well-traveled.

After about a mile or so, there was a less-traveled road off to our left, in the direction of some mountains. There was also, at this intersection, a parked car and 4 teenage boys, drinking beer, as teenage boys will do, and roasting hotdogs over a small fire. We asked them if the road to the left led to the scenic lookout, but none of them admitted speaking English. I decided to go for it.

We followed a single set of tire tracks (in the snow), for another mile, until we came to the edge of the cliff - I was driving slow, no real danger of us plunging off the cliff. The first mystery was that the tire tracks I had been following just stopped - they didn't go over the cliff, there was no sign of turning around, and there was no car??? Not sure if this was really a scenic lookout (probably not).

Trying to turn around, I got stuck. When I couldn't rock it out, I put wife behind the wheel and pushed it out - of those ruts, only to get stuck again. This pattern repeated for the next hour. I have been driving in Minnesota for 50 years, and never experienced conditions like this. There was only about an inch of snow, but below the snow was several feet of loose volcanic ash, which is a lot like snow, except worse.

It was now about 5:00., the sun was getting low, is was getting cold, and my wife was not nearly as cheerful as she appears in the photo (right). 

So we hiked the mile back to the teenagers with the fire. It turned out, they did speak passable English (a lot better than my Turkish). We explained what had happened. They said, "Oh, that's quite common, happens all the time." And went back to drinking.

So we hiked another mile back to the blacktop road, where there happened to be a BP station. Five old men were attempting to repair one of the pumps. They were much friendlier than the teenagers, but none of them (really) spoke English. After a while, one of the men disappeared into a living quarters behind the station, and emerged with a 10 yr-old boy - who spoke fluent English. We explained what had happened. The boy said, "Oh, that's quite common, happens all the time." And went inside. But not before explaining our predicament to the adults.

One of the men pulled out his flip-phone and made a call. He then escorted us into the living quarters, where the 10 yr-old and a friend were watching soccer, and signaled for us to wait. We were not sure exactly what we were waiting for. Nor how long it might take. Or if our rescuer could actually get us out of there. Or how much it might cost. Or whether whoever came to our rescue would take American plastic. I had about $30 worth of Turkish Lira. 

The soccer game ended. The boys left. It got dark. After about an hour, we were now watching some sort of political debate, in Turkish, the man who had made the phone call signaled for us to come outside. There, was a farmer on what appeared to be a 1910-era tractor. He motioned for me to climb onto the tractor. There wasn't really any place to ride, so I sort of balanced on this thin bar and held on to the man's seat. My wife stayed behind, watching the debate.

I gave the farmer directions by pointing. When we reached our rental car, he jumped off and hooked up a chain to something under the car (finding a part of the Fiesta not made of plastic was actually the most difficult part of this process), and pulled it out - no problem. When we got back to the larger gravel road, where the teenagers were still drinking, he unhooked it. While I was turning around, ever so carefully, the farmer on the tractor took off. I caught up with him at the BP station, and flagged him down. He was slightly annoyed to be stopped again, perhaps headed home for dinner, maybe to watch the debate.

He spoke no English, but I managed to convey that I wanted to pay him, and he managed to convey that he did not expect to be paid. I gave him the $30 worth of Turkish Lira anyway. I retrieved my wife, and we drove on to our original destination, where we found a room and had a very nice meal.

I thought about this, and similar experiences, as my old friend talked about how dangerous it might be to take a Viking River Boat Cruise on the Rhine these days. My friend is a believer in the theory of "American Exceptionalism." And like most believers in "American Exceptionalism," he has never really been out of the country (Canada and Cancun don't count). 

So I agreed—for fellows like this, a Rhine River cruise probably was too dangerous. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Lost in the Black Forest

Okay, in the interests of full disclosure, I have to tell you that, as adventure stories go, this one is not the most thrilling you'll ever hear. The forest I was lost in was indeed in Germany, and it was "black" in that it consisted of a large amount of dense, dark fir trees which is what lends the authentic Black Forest its name. It was also black simply because the forest was foggy with mist that day.  But it was not really in the officially designated "Black Forest", which actually lies a little bit to the west and south of where I was lost.

And my being "lost", even, was a rather momentary thing, lacking in heart-pounding drama. From the low mountainside where I was hiking, walking downward would inevitably bring me to the Rhine River, and from there it would be pretty easy matter to walk downstream just a little, where the town of Heidelberg would be found, and where jumping a train at the haupfbohnhof, would very easily take me back to a warm hotel room in Frankfurt. This was not mortal danger I was in.

Still, this was the last adventure of a certain kind that I will have, and so it was worth savoring. There will be other adventures, to be sure, but this is the last one of  this particular ilk.

I was on my free day at the tail end of the enormous Frankfurt Book Fair—the most important trade fair of the entire publishing industry, in which tens of thousands of publishing professionals descend on the gigantic Messe convention center for a solid week of meetings and presentations. On the final free day of the trip, with the last of my scheduled meetings finished, I took the train down to Heidelberg to walk around a bit, first in the old town with its gingerbread architecture, then up onto the mountainside above the medieval castle there. Where I got momentarily lost. In a forest that was pretty black. Where I could indulge in a little mental exaggeration.

Over the years at various sales and publishing duties I've attended in representation of my company, I've frequently piggybacked a personal day, or several days,  to pursue some kind of mild adventure that otherwise would cost me my own out-of-pocket plane fare. I'm nothing if not careful with a buck, and if the job requires me to be some place in the world, dammit, I'm going to make sure to take the opportunity for some kind of little adventure, if possible.

Sometimes that adventure has been very, very modest indeed. Sometimes there's barely time for a drive around the countryside.  Some trips, it's no more than a short visit to some state park or museum I wouldn't otherwise see. Once, it was simply an afternoon hike in a stretch of old-growth forest in southern Kentucky, just after a book launch party for an author. But there have also been more impressive adventures.

I categorically hate Las Vegas and everything it stands for, but the unavoidable trade fairs that have brought me there over the years have allowed me to hike up Red Rock Canyon to Turtlehead peak, where the vistas over the shimmering desert give you sight-lines of 40 miles or so. Another Las Vegas trip saw me rent a car on the final day to drive a couple hundred miles around the desert, along the mysterious Area 51 Air Force test base, through Death Valley, and through the most beautiful prehistoric-looking desert I've ever seen, to the south of Vegas on the road to Henderson. On the best Vegas trip of all, I took three days before the trade show for a three day overnight backpack trip with one of our sales reps (the rare salesman who knows how to shut up) into Zion National Park, beginning in the beautiful sandstone canyons of the low park and ending up in the Ponderosa pines of the higher elevations, where fresh mountain lion tracks gave a certain thrill to camping that night. Fortunately, it was not until the last day that I barely avoided stepping on one of the plentiful rattlesnakes in the park, this one a six-footer with a body as thick as my bicep. Sleeping on the ground deep in the park would have been significantly more challenging if I'd been worried about snakes right from the beginning.

After the London Book Fair one year, I took a few days to head out to King Arthur country to hike, where I climbed the Tor at Glastonbury, wandered among prehistoric Celtic stone worship circles, drank cold water from sacred wells, and slept in a cottage where the owners had placed a large amethyst crystal under the bed for its "energetic properties"  (this was in a particularly "New Age" segment of my inner life).

Another year, I rented a car after the Frankfurt fair and raced down the autobahn and into Switzerland, where on a gorgeous autumn day I hiked well up the base of the Matterhorn from Zermatt, up to the point where I was thigh-high in snow and staring up at the peak itself lying 60 degrees or so above horizontal. The peak was so bright in the thin air that it was positively painful to look at. On the way back down, shaggy, brown-eyed cattle with large bells hanging around their necks stood patiently in high alpine meadows as I stroked their necks.

You might find it odd that I do most of these things solo—my wife, a textbook extravert, certainly does. But the fact is that I never feel so connected to something larger and more universal than myself than when alone with the natural world in some way. It is where I find the presence that some people call God.

Beyond the adventures where the job itself paid for the plane tickets, there were other adventures that the job itself and its modestly decent salary made possible: taking my young kids and wife to Paris and Rome, where my lasting memory is my eight-year old daughter with her head leaned back against my stomach as we both looked up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling in awe; trekking into the back country of Denali National Park with a friend Ive known since the age of four; taking a more sedate week-long whiskey-tasting tour of Scotland with that same friend many years later; having a most wonderful trip with my wife to southern France with another couple (yes, that same friend and his wife) to tour the deep caves where prehistoric humans created the first known art; taking the grown family again to London and Rome, this time with the kids as full adults and in company of their life partners.

Perhaps some of these things would have happened even if I'd worked in a garden center rather than as publisher, but certainly not all of them. It was the necessary work travel, along with a paycheck that exceeded the needs of mere survival, that made these things possible for me.

And so, finding myself quietly lost last week in a rather non-terrifying way on a mountainside 2,000 feet or so above the Rhine River Valley in central Germany was something to be savored. It took only 20 minutes or so of tromping down the hillside to pick up the trail, and shortly after that I came across direction arrows carved into a stone that told me where to go. And in a few weeks the business travel will be done and I'll be moving into doing part-time editorial work from the comfort of my home office rather than on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I'll be working half the hours and experiencing 10% of the stress, and the adventures then will be of a different type, requiring different planning and execution.

So I'm exceedingly thankful for the career I've had over the last 31 years, and for the relative good health that's allowed me to still do these things as the age of 60 approaches. Most Americans, especially those that enjoy a middle class life, are exceedingly lucky folks when stacked up against the rest of the world, and we really ought to reflect on that more often.

Today, I'm reflecting on precisely that.