Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A 2:00 a.m. Musing

When I was a younger man, I tried lived according to a belief that went something like this:

“I am the author of my own experience.”

It is not an uncommon belief for people in the first half or two-thirds of life, and is probably a necessary one. Most people have this sense, and sometimes hold it to be true for the duration.  Who knows—it might even be the correct equation. Some people would insist this it is so, and I am in no real position to say they are wrong.

But as I enter what is almost certainly the third trimester of life, I become aware of another possibility. What if:

The infinite and wonderful universe, though some unspoken intent, has caused a constellation of unique experiences to come together, bonded by a mysterious gravity of individual awareness. That single constellation is what I’ve conveniently thought of as “me.”

So in my approaching old age, I’ve begun to think the reality might be different, that “I” am not the author of my experience at all, but on the contrary, am authored by the experiences and awareness gifted to me by the universe, by God. Perhaps even my willfulness—which has caused me some pride but also some heartache--is really just the play of natural laws moving within that one little constellation of experience I have labeled “me”.

Strangely, this idea does not seem to reduce me at all; on the contrary, it feels like freedom.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

And So it Goes (November 15, 2016)

The girl is on a roll. We welcome back Sehr Wenig for an encore. May there be many more to follow—the editor

At the beach Sunday morning, a man stood with his back to the ocean, FaceTiming with family. "I love you," he said again and again in heavily accented English and the high, tight voice people use with children. "Goodbye. Goodbye. I love you. See you soon," he said.

I made my way past this handsome man wearing $1200 black leather Berluti tennis shoes and a Prada jacket, with a yarmulke somehow attached to a large bald spot.

When I passed him again on my way back up the beach, the man pointed to my nearly-full trash bag and asked, "Why are you doing that?" 

"I'm tired of being sad about the election and need to do something positive."

"You’re sad about the election?"

"Yes. Very."

"Why? There’s hope in America again!"

"Hope?" Bagnell Dam burst inside my chest. "I had breast cancer this year. If they repeal Obamacare and allow insurance companies to refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, I will be uninsurable if I lose my job. And it's not just me. Twenty million will lose health care entirely. Millions more will be vulnerable. That's not hope. And health care is just one issue. Hundreds of other issues will hurt millions of others."

"Sorry," he said in a voice that dripped with not-at-all-sorry.

I moved down the beach, filling yet another bag with trash and wondering why a wealthy man—who clearly loves his family and is devout enough to cover his head out of respect for God—is not compassionate enough to care about people whose lives may be damaged by Trump’s presidency. 

A few hours later, Donald Trump appointed Steve Bannon—a man whose “news” organization publishes a steady stream of anti-Semitic and white nationalist rhetoric—his “Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.” 

And so it goes.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And So it Goes (November 13, 2016)

The editors are pleased to welcome back our favorite female Geezer, Sehr Wenig. 

As a Minnesota Geezer lost in LaLa Land, I go to the beach nearly every weekend.

When I went to the beach a few weeks ago, a taco truck was parked on the PCH, its owner clearly living there. This morning two more food trucks had joined the sad parade. As it happens, these particular trucks come to the one-way street outside our office every day, feeding streams of computer engineers and movie marketers and media types. Imagine catering to privilege every day and then sleeping on the cold metal floor of a make-shift kitchen every night so you can get up and do it again.

As usual, a homeless black man slept in a blue sleeping bag, huddled against the seawall. Last week his drug paraphernalia was nestled in a toddler’s hiking boot, just within reach. This week the little hiking boot was nowhere to be seen.

Down on the beach, a 30-ish Mexican man and his 8- or 9-year-old son threw stones into the water, laughing at good throws and groaning at bad ones.

A 40-ish woman sat on a rock, playing a guitar. The man wrapped around her from behind corrected her fingering now and then as she learned a new song. 

The woman's long, mousy brown hair was tucked into a newsboy cap. The edges of a rip in the sleeve of her whiskey-colored leather jacket fluttered in the breeze as she strummed, and she tapped the worn-through toes of Stuart Weitzman boots that probably cost a thousand dollars, long ago and far away.

Eventually, the man took the guitar and began to play softly. "F*ck you," she cried. "You're so much better than I am. It's not fair!"

"No, baby. Not better. Just been playing longer," he crooned.

"You make me so f*ck'n mad with the way you play."

Now dancing to the man’s tune, the bone-thin woman smiled broadly. The pockmarks on her face glowed in the sun -- a rosy contrast to the blackened edges of every tooth.

"You can see my human-icity on my face," she said. "You like that word? Human-icity." 

"Humanity," the man murmured. 

"I like my word better," she replied.

I couldn't hear his response, but it made her wild.

"I asked you never to mention her. Never speak her name in my presence," she shouted. "I beat her up, you know. Beat her ass in the CVS parking lot. Knocked her off her bike and kicked the shit out of her."

"How dare she tell people I set her husband on fire. I've never set anyone on fire in my life. Except myself."

The tide rolled in, accompanied by the giant sucking sound of water rushing in and out at the same time. 

I’ve been distraught since the election, filled with fear and rage toward racism and misogyny and Islamophobia. I’m still outraged but have to admit things looked ever-so-slightly different from this vantage point.

If this woman were my daughter or my sister or my mother and IF I believed Trump's wall would “seal our borders” to keep drugs out of our country, it’s possible I might have voted for him. It’s even remotely possible I would have chanted, "Build that wall," along with the crowd -- not as a way of throwing stones at people like the young father and his son, but out of desperation and misguided belief this "strong man" could save a woman I loved. 

But I do not believe Trump is strong, and I do not believe he will save anyone. Or that he even cares to try. 

Before leaving the beach, I filled a trash bag with bottle caps and empty beer bottles and chip sacks. On the way back up the sand ramp, I noticed someone had placed a bag of groceries on top of the rock that shelters the homeless man.

And so it goes.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

A LIberal Geezer Emerges from a Funk.....

I'm a long veteran of mindful exploration, and when the hobby manages to stay this side of narcissistic navel-gazing, I've learned a thing or two about the workings of that oddity called the Mind of Mercurious.

One thing I'm aware of is that the old noggin has an interesting way of concocting its own stories. The stories it hatches sometimes ask to be called "truth," but close examination shows that pretty much every story contains a good measure of fictional story-telling. When in a buouyant, jubilant mood, deep looking reveals an inner story that is preposterously upbeat; and when in a melancholy mood, you'll often find an inner story with a rather dismal plot line.

There is no right or wrong to this, and I'd be the last to suggest that there is some kind of "power of positive thinking" dumb-ass self-help advice to be had here. It's just the way it is: the mind tells stories, and sometimes those stories are bright and happy, and sometimes they are dour and discouraging or frightening. Period.

Since Tuesday evening, I've been in as discouraged a mood as I can ever recall, a melancholy bordering on clinical depression. The catalyst, of course, is the election of the Orange Ogre. The depth of this melancholy has puzzled me a little, since incompetence in public officials is nothing new in the world, and in my lifetime I've rolled with Richard Nixon, agonized over Johnson, lamented over Carter, fumed over Reagan, laughed at W.

So why, I wondered, is Donald Trump's election hitting me so goddamn hard?

I've begun to see the reason in just the last day or so. The inner story I've been telling myself has a plot synopsis something like this:  "Fifty-nine million of my neighbors and coworkers and distant family members voted for the Orange Oaf because they like his racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, lying bullshit. My nation is full of bad human beings who don't give shit about anybody but themselves."

That's enough to depress anybody, I suppose, especially if you have believed that people are basically good. It's like waking up and discovering that your father was actually Hitler.

But in the last day or so, I've come to understand that while Trump is indeed a lousy waste of oxygen, quite a lot of his non-deplorable voters were acting on another inner story, the opening lines of which went something like this:  "Fuck Washington. My kids are drinking poisoned water, my faucets are blowing methane gas from frack explosions, and the goddamn bankers get richer while I'm working at Walmart for $7.00 an hour and can't afford health insurance."

The reality is that for a good chunk of America, Washington—both Democratic and Republican Washington—has betrayed them, again and again. They voted Trump because he was the one guy who didn't represent Washington, and they voted for him for the same reason Bernie Sanders gave Hillary a hard time, and for the same reason that Trump beat all those polished Republicans in the primaries. He was different. The others were all the same. And this time, anyway, being different was more important that being good or even decent. Hillary is a far better human being than Donald Trump, but she is life-long politician, and middle America knows where that story leads.

Pretty sure I'm right about this, because now that we're finally listening to those middle Americans, what we're hearing is that a whole bunch of Obama voters from 2012 voted for Trump this time; that a number of Bernie voters ended up casting their lot with Trump. In a race this close, that's the ballgame, folks. A Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren would very likely have won Ohio, Pennyslvania, Michigan, Wisconsin—and then my inner story looks much different.

So I offer something of an apology to the young Democrats, among them my daughter and some offspring of other Geezers. We had it wrong. I'm not sure if Bernie Sanders was the guy, but it needed to be somebody outside the box. If I had it to do over again, I would have hoped for Elizabeth Warren, who is as feisty as Bernie Sanders without being mean, who REALLY would take it to the banks and Wall Street, and who is scary smart. If the young democrats are shrewd enough to chuck the old school once and for all and nominate a revolutionary next time,  Orange Otis will be out on the streets in four years.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Slice of Geezer Life

This geezer is an early riser. 4:00 am often finds him comfortably awake in bed, at which time he meditates quietly for a bit of time, until he hears the first jet airline landing at the airport five miles down the road. Generally the airport traffic is kept to a minimum in the six to eight core hours of the night, and the sound of the first landing plane in the distance announces that it is approaching 5:00 am. The weather can usually be determined with good accuracy merely by listening to the sounds of the air traffic. The geezer always knows if it is cloudy or clear, just from the sound of the jet engines in the far distance.

A quick shower, and the geezer brings in the newspapers, makes a cup of coffee and heads up to his small comfortable office upstairs. His time will be his until 7:00 am, and this first magical hour or two in predawn darkness will be spent checking emails to see if there are friends or business colleagues to respond to, reading the newspapers, and sipping the first cup of morning coffee. A year ago, the geezer would already be on the way to the bus stop to start a work day that generally consumed 12 hours of the day, 60 hours of the week.

A man's leather recliner from Hom furniture is his castle. 
If the papers and personal emails are concluded, the geezer now sometimes turns to one of the small freelance jobs that may await. They are tremendously easy for him, even fun, because they lean on 30 years of experience in home improvement and gardening subjects, and all he does here is simply review on-line articles young writers have written, add or correct small details that he knows implicitly from years of experience, then publish them. He has come to marvel a little at the ingenuity of some of these young writers, so influenced by the "Real Simple" and "maker" mentality of the day. The money isn't the point; it is fun, almost recreational work. If there remains anything not done, he'll do it easily later in the day while watching the World Series on television. This part of the day will continue until 7:00 am, no later.

At 7:00 sharp he turns to the real work, usually deep substantive editing of some book manuscript on a gardening, home DIY, or pop culture subject. This work is salaried, done for the same company for which the geezer served as a VP for many years. But it is a return to the joyful work of making words communicate helpful information to people who want to know how to do things. Years ago, he gravitated to this business because of the magic of manipulating mere symbols into books that had meaning and rhythm and purpose, and now he has returned to that world after a long pressure-filled sojourn into the corporate level of publishing.

At 9:00 am or so, after two or three hours of fully absorbed and entertaining work, he takes his only break of the morning, usually to walk downstairs and refill his coffee and maybe grab a piece of fruit for breakfast. Occasionally this break is spent calling an old friend in California, who is also an early riser and will be up and alert. She has been struggling, and now recovering, from breast cancer for the last year. She thinks that her geezer friend calls as an act of charitable support, but in reality she is a true geezer in her own right, and the call is medicinal for him. He enjoys the company of another skilled word person and longtime friend, and he finds the wit of the conversation helpful to his editing and writing, and to his soul.  Occasionally, when they become too engrossed in discussing some book or philosophical concept, the geezer will find he's gone past the 20 minute break he's allowed himself. If so, he'll make a mental note to extend his workday just a little.

Even an extended workday, though, rarely extends past 2:00 pm at the latest, since he is now contractually obligated for merely 30 hours a week. So at 1:00 or 2:00 pm, his work day is over, and he emerges from his morning of productive solitude. After a quick lunch, he then sometimes turns to whatever small home projects may be going on at the moment, often tackling them together with his bride. A number of little home improvements projects are always underway, and a couple of hours will be spent pursuing them. This time of year, it is often some outdoor work preparing the extensive gardens for winter. This too, is purely enjoyable work. In fact, at the end of the day, the geezer often reflects that the day hasn't included any work at all, since it has all seemed like recreation, like one big hobby.

At late afternoon, the geezer sends his aging body on to some kind of therapeutic physical activity—an hour at the gym exercising a bad knee on a stationary bike, or an hour in the pool swimming, or an hour or two of a good outdoor walk at one of the many parks in the area. Because all of this is meditative for him, none of it ever feels like a duty or therapy.

Soon to follow will be dinner with his bride,  who has spent much of her day pursuing her own charity endeavors and work-for-pay assignments. These days, dinner is an informal affair. Relieved of the daily meal preparation for four people in a family,  the geezer pair now may take a car ride or walk to pick up a variety of tasty little salads from a local deli counter, or may order Chinese takeout, or they make some kind of little meal, often from kale and tomatoes and  eggplants still growing outside in a garden that has not yet succumbed to frost. On some days, the geezers don't formally eat at all, but kind of graze from tidbits of nice little dinners left over from earlier days. The family discussion is of what's happened during the day, what the grown kids are doing, what mutual friends are up to, who has called that day or who needs to be called, discussion of social engagements pending that week, or drawing attention to whatever has been happening in the world, politically or culturally. Mutual outrage and ridicule directed at Mr. Trump is often heard.

After dinner, a small glass of good Scotch may appear on the end table, a fire may appear in the fireplace, and the geezer browses the cable news networks for political insight, or may go back to the finish the wonderfully skillful news stories that pack the New York Times newspaper that was begun this morning. Now there is sometimes a television drama or two to watch, but these days most of the programs are painfully boring to the geezer, and although his bride has a few programs that she follows, more often the geezer himself turns to one of six to ten books on the end table. At this moment, there are books of psychology, buddhism, poetry, Taoism, eroticism, politics, hard-boiled crime fiction and pop music biography to be found in the stack. The eroticism has been cleverly turned so spine lettering faces the wall; the geezer is a bit shy about certain proclivities.

At some time in the evening, the geezer usually opens a laptop computer play to take his turn in an online game underway with old, dear friends living around the country. Very often there is a keyboard chat exchange while this is underway, and sometimes when all the geezers find themselves online at the same time, the entire evening is spent in mutual insults or in discussing some political issue of the day with frantically typing fingers and abrupt and frequent audible laughter. Once this game sees its nightly play, the Geezer usually checks in on one or more online scrabble games underway, one with his grown daughter, and one or more with other friends. Sometimes here, too, there is a chat exchange or two (or 200) that ensue.

Other evenings often find the geezer answering text messages or dialoguing by email with other friends. Sometimes, even, the geezer participates in The Facebook or The Twitter, where he has a whopping 35 Friends and follows a massive number (12) of Twits. Make no mistake, he is a thoroughly modern geezer.

One or two nights during the week may find the geezer and his bride out and about in some kind of social activity, or at a restaurant, or just walking the neighborhood. It is rare that you find them in actual partying, though it sometimes happens. At this comfortable stage, good socializing may well be taking in a concert at the park bandshell, or taking advantage of 5-buck movie night with senior discount at the local film theater. Sitting quietly in a dark theater with other movie watchers has always left the geezer with an inexplicable sense of archetypal communion. He and his wife spend more time in theaters than the pope spends in church.

10:00 pm usually sees the geezer watching The Daily Show, or making a last pass through CNN and MSNBC, or checking in on the enemy at FoxNews. The glass of Scotch has been sipped to extinction over the course of the evening, and the fireplace embers are nearly faded. More often than not, the Geezer will be asleep by 10:30 or 11:00, and while this seems very early to retire, it should be remembered that he will be awake in 5 or 6 hours.

The geezer likes his life beyond all measure.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Neighborhood (Manure) Storm

Now working a mere 30 hours a week, I find myself with a little free time on my hands, and among the amusements I allow myself is reading the on-line postings for our neighborhood chat board. It serves a rather large zone of the city, perhaps 1500 or so homes, maybe more. The chat board is a place in which neighbors alert one another that there's a rash of garage break-ins occurring in one corner of the neighborhood; or that that loud boom at 2:00 am the other night was just a power transformer blowing out. It's the place where garage sales are announced, where people ask advice on good chiropractors working in our area.  That kind of stuff.

It's also a place for a handful of eccentrics and occasional crackpots practice their writing skills. So the chat forum also has its entertainment value. One fellow spent two pages the other day bitterly complaining about a single small dog turd left in the grass of his boulevard. Another writer described in very peculiar fashion that he'd seem some crazy person trying to eat the face off a child at a local park (no such event ever happened).

Another writer recently reported that a teenager up to late summer hijinks was seen streaking naked around the Walgreen's parking lot—conjecturing that this was certainly a manifestation of either sexual predation or drug use,  rather than a 16-year old running naked on a dare. This guy then proudly GAVE CHASE  to the young man, finally cornering the kid on the shores of a small pond. An old man driving his car to chase down a naked teenager was apparently in the boundaries of proper behavior, while a kid running naked on warm night after being dared by his friends is the stuff of felonies.

My wife realized a week or to ago that I had begun to post my own replies to a few of these letters, and warned me then that nothing good was likely to come of it. She knows me well. But I  sometimes can't help but drop in a quiet reply note on the chat board. And if this has the effect of gently baiting one of the eccentrics and his minions, well, whose fault is that?

To the fellow outraged by a teenager streaking in the night, for example,  I replied with an outraged agreement over "today's youth,"  then went on to express my own similar outrage at a kid who had stepped on plants in my garden, and finally asked if anyone knew the telephone number whereby the FBI could be alerted. Hyperbole, all the way. If you were keeping score, you'd get big points for putting sarcasm over on the writer of the letter without him catching it. My success rate exceeds 50%.

It's all meant in rather good fun, really. I actually like the lunatic fringe. They are more fun than the dreadful "I found a baby sock, is it yours?" folks.

But the other day I came across a fellow's rant about a careless driver in the neighborhood. Now, a rational neighbor might alert the chat board to be on the lookout for a possibly dangerous driver, and that would be that. Good old fashioned public service. This writer, though, went through a creative writing exercise that included phrases like "assholedness" and "jackassery," not to mention a host of other misspellings and vitriolic raging. The tirade went on for perhaps 700 words or so, and was done not to inform, but to rant.

With an admitted lack of cleverness, my quiet printed response, one among two dozen from other neighbors,  was "Perhaps review grammar before next post?"

Lord in heaven, what a shit-storm ensued.

"Jim" appears to have quite a following, since in addition to several "likes" given to my own comment,  a half-dozen of Jim's tribe began to publicly accuse me of malicious cruelty. Then one decided to go on a personal quest—first with a long public response saying that she'd complained to the board's moderator that I had inappropriately "attacked a fellow neighbor." The board's moderator responded by suggesting gently that "Jim's" complaint had been a little inappropriate to begin with. This perhaps is what set Joyce in to hyper drive.

Unhappy with the response,  Joyce then decided to send me a personal, non-public message bitterly accusing me of vindictively attacking Jim. (Personal messaging is a rather unusual thing in our chat forum, reserved generally for situations in which somebody gives you their phone number after offering to magnanimously take that incontinent old dog off your hands, for example. )

It was fascinating. Let's remember, my comment was merely "Perhaps review grammar?"

Joyce was, she said, a teacher of college English, and as such had reviewed Jim's essay before hand, and had verified that it was both grammatically fine, and semantically brilliant. Furthermore, Jim was a scion of a fine old family within the community, and had earned the right to be guardian of the roadways. He had the ears of police officers everywhere. Hitler himself would not have attacked Jim as cruelly as I had done.

Hmm. This was getting distinctly entertaining.

The first dumb thing I did was begin playing along, by responding to Joyce in the same private chat mode. I feigned professional interest, asking what dictionary I might refer to for a definition of "jackassery." And I asked for a citation in Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Style Book where Jim's interesting use of punctuation in and around parentheticals was promoted. (Clearly,  I have,  too much time, on my hands.).

Escalation ensued, and before I knew it I was into eccentricity beyond my pay grade.  Soon Joyce announced that she was "watching me" (her real words) and would report any bad behavior to the police.

Any rational person would  realize that this was some serious lunatic nonsense going on now, and would have responded with dead silence and getting the hell out of the neighborhood chat forum altogether.  Is that what your Geezer friend, Mercurious did?  No, of course not. Instead,  I stupidly replied to Joyce once more, saying that her "stalking threats" were scaring my little kids, and that my dear little Jenny was crying her eyes out about the "crazy lady hunting us." (My own daughter is 27, is not named Jenny, and eats dumbasses alive for breakfast in a way that puts me to shame.)

You may now be relieved (or perhaps disappointed) to hear that we now take a step backward from the gate to the crazy farm.

This story does not end in tragedy or even juicy drama. Two more rounds of private messages ensue, in which first I learn that "Joyce" is actually "Jim's" wife—not his English teacher—and that her angry accusations are her means of rather touchingly defending her hubby—who apparently has a medical condition marked by a very, very thin epidermis. This is proven when Jim himself actually private-messages Mercurious, apologizing for his inappropriate name-calling—and then kind of weepingly acknowledging he is a bad writer but is trying to get better. (Dunno, maybe my own leg being pulled? I kind of hope so.) And Mercurious also apologizes for inadvertently creating personal insult rather than simply communicating compositional criticism.

Mercurious, "Joyce" and "Jim" are now fast friends. We'll be vacationing next spring to the foothills of the mountains near Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, in an enclave that caters to our kind.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mr. Wells, Time to Go Back to Fargo

The Mercurious household has for many years banked with Wells Fargo.

Wait until I finish to call me an ignorant jackass.

I'll grant you there is no real reason for this banking loyalty except laziness and simple ennui.  For many years we banked with a very good local banking corporation known as Norwest, and when they were acquired by Wells Fargo a couple of decades ago, we just went along for the ride. And never bothered to dismount.

Wells Fargo has been known for years as one of the better (or at least less evil) giants of the big national banking conglomerates. It did not, for example, hang its tits fully out the car window in the outrageous mortgage debacle that threatened to bring down the entire US economy in 2008 and 2009, and overall it is viewed as the best managed of all the huge banking corporations. Seriously: that's its reputation.

That's not to say that Wells Fargo hasn't annoyed me. The fact they have gradually and systematically tried to increase the fees they charge to consumers for the right to hold their money and lend it out to others at 5 to 23% interest is pretty damned outrageous, after all. The not-insubstantial minimum balance I've graciously kept in their vault for 20 years has likely earned them many times that amount in credit card or mortgage interest charged to some other customer. And for funding them, they try to charge ME a fee.

But I understand that gone are the days of my youth, where the local hometown bank would at least give you utterly free checking simply because you were loaning them your money to fund their business.

And after all, you simply can't find a major bank anymore that offers this kind of old-fashioned customer service,  so I felt no reason to drop Wells Fargo. I mean, it served no purpose to give my money to Citicorp instead.

Another source of annoyance has been the fact that every single time I have business at the bank teller window, the Wells Fargo employee has ALWAYS tried to convince me that I should consider opening some kind of different, additional account. I mean this is pretty ludicrous, and I've told them as much:  what could be the possible purpose of opening a second savings account that gets .00000102% interest rather than the impressive .0000001% I'm already getting?  An extra .37 cents annually in interest is simply not worth the time to fill out the application. If you want a real laugh, look into the mutual fund offerings from a major bank. This is the reason why low-fee brokers like Vanguard are doing so well.

 Mrs. Merurious and I are not stupid, so of course the only cash we keep in Wells Fargo is the emergency, disposable fund balances—just enough to keep fees to a minimum—yet each time you approach a teller, they check your balance and if it reaches some kind of lip-smacking threshold, they try to talk you into stepping into the back room to discuss "options for your money."  It's gotten to the point where I preempt them by saying "No, I don't want to discuss options for my money. Let's discuss options for you to shut up and deposit these checks. "

Now, of course, we know why they've been doing this.  Those Wells Fargo employees have been offered incentives by management to talk poor schmucks into opening additional accounts of dubious or nonexistent merit. And in many, many instances, it appears they were going ahead to open those accounts without even permission on the part of the customer, simply to reap the in-house commissions. This is called criminal fraud, my friends.

It gets worse, of course. This is not a few bad-apple employees, but 5300 of them (that we know about so far) who did this illegal no-no and have been caught at it. All 5300 have been fired, of which 10% were the managers who either planned the fraud, actively looked the other way, or were too incompetent to have watch-dogged their direct reports. The head of the division that perpetrated this fraud, Carrie Tolstedt, recently retired with a $125 million bonus, proving that not only was she a criminal/incompetent, but her own bosses were, too.
Carrie Tolstedt, one of Wells Fargo's brightest stars. 

The truly scary part, of course, is that this is the banking corporation widely regarded as the best in the nation. What the hell then, is going on at JP Morgan, Citibank, Bank of America? One can only guess.

If Hillary Clinton has any brains at all, she needs to pick up at least this part of the Bernie Sanders platform:  the banking industry in America is an evil, greedy giant that will take us down if we don't do something quickly.

It's making my local Ben & Marvin's Credit Union and Barbecue Shack looking ever more appealing. At least their I get a free order with ribs for my minimum balance.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Patriotism Considered

I'm not a fan of patriotism. It makes me uneasy.

This is sentiment you are best advised to keep to yourself, most of the time, most places, because patriotism these days, and for most people, is regarded as a virtue second to none. But I find patriotism to be a dangerous sentiment. During the playing of the national anthem at public events,  I stand and take off my cap, out of respect to military servicemen, mostly, and in celebration of joining with like-minded people in a large public gathering.  But I do not sing, and the flag does nothing whatsoever to moisten my eyes.

At the time, this was regarded as unpatriotic.....
I arrived at my uneasiness regarding patriotism, I suppose, as a result of living my formative years through the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam and Watergate years, where it became evident that blind support of the policies of one's nation caused too many people to ignore its problems.  When I was a late teenager and young adult, there was a common bumpersticker that said "America, Love it or Leave It."

To which my silent response was always "Fuck you, buddy."  If you truly loved your country, it seemed to me, the adage should be "America: if you Love it, Change it for the Better." The people who unconsciously waved the flag at every opportunity always struck me as simply too lazy to really think hard or see clearly. In the satiric novel Cat's Cradle, author Kurt Vonnegut defined a grandfalloon as a false "karass"—a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. His example: any nation, any where, any time. To this day, that seems to me an excellent way to look at blind patriotism. It is an automatic emotion that can too easily be manipulated.

.....while this was the epitome of patriotism. 
I see it as a short step from blind patriotism to blind nationalism, and it was rabid nationalism, after all, that allowed the National Socialist party to rise in Germany in the 1930s. Following your nation's leaders wherever they go is a potentially dangerous enterprise. It's no surprise that it's a form of blind patriotism/nationalism that political parties are using today to try to garner support. So many people wave the flag without thinking about it, that the candidate who manages to identify himself as the patriotic candidate will almost always win.

Civic devotion, it seems to me, should be aimed at the higher values that are hopefully part of the nation's mission statement, or aimed at individuals within that nation and their rights to pursue those values. There is nothing whatsoever holy about the imaginary lines that create national boundaries, or about the flag used to symbolize that artificial territory, for that matter. A true patriot would celebrate a foreigner coming to America to join us in freedom; they would not want to build walls to keep folks out.

A gathering of John Wayne and other "patriots" in 1969. 
So I have some sympathy for actors, musicians, athletes and other prominent people who take a stand on national stages to point out when national hypocrisy raises its head. In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith upon winning the 4 x 100 relay event in the Olympics bowed their heads and raised fists covered with black gloves to protest the treatment of black people in America. Their reward was to be stripped of their medals and publicly humiliated—for a while. History now suggests their move was a heroic one, and both men are now rightly respected as folk heroes.

This week, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick says he will not stand during the national anthem this season, out of protest in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I honestly don't know what his motivation here is, but before ridiculing him we'd be well advised to realize this protest carries significant professional risk for Colin, and we'd also be well advised to remember John Carlos and dozens of others for whom true patriotism was not about waving the flag, but about expressing their public shame of it when the nation was behaving shamefully.

The Woodstock festival, I'd submit, was a far more patriotic
demonstration of democracy than any Donald Trump rally. 
John Wayne made dozens of movies in which he played military heroes. But John Wayne also supported McCarthyism, and seems to have ratted out colleagues in order to advance his career. History shows that John Wayne was no patriot at all. The judgment of history is much different for people like Arthur Miller, whose play The Crucible lampooned McCarthyism; or Edward R Murrow, who always saw McCarthy for what he was and had the courage to say so.

I will continue to rise for the national anthem, but the warmth of my feelings will be for the fellowship of the people around me, for the memory of those who have served to preserve my ability to enjoy that fellowship. It will be out of respect for human values, not dedication to a nation or flag.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Minneapolis Streetwalker: August 25, 2016

Maybe it's because my left knee is throbbing tonight, or maybe because the time of day reminds me that a good friend a couple of thousand miles away is likely at this moment under a radiation machine getting zapped for cancer treatment. Whatever the reason, as I sit at the Lake Harriet band shell watching a free outdoor evening concert, I find myself musing about the various injuries and wounds and illnesses that are part of the human condition.

My recent goal  to walk the length of every street of Minneapolis over the next few years is off to a steady but slow start, hampered by a leg brace protecting my surgically repaired knee. On most days, I go to a neighborhood somewhere in the city to walk a bit toward the overall goal. On this day, the last few hundred yards of walking involved Ms. Mercurious and I walking from our parking spot to the outdoor band shell on the shores of a pretty city lake beset with sail boats cruising in the early evening light. After a day of activity, the knee is now communicating with a rhythmic throb—not angrily, but just letting me know its feelings on the matter.

There are plentiful signs among the audience members that I am by no means alone in having a physical challenge, which in my case is only a temporary thing.  Off to the right, a young woman wears a plastic boot over her lower leg, possibly recuperating from a bone fracture. Up at the front of the seating area, a couple of people are in wheelchairs—whether due to injury or chronic condition is not entirely clear. To our left is a fellow with his left arm and shoulder in a sling. Elsewhere,  I spot a variety of canes and walkers and other assistive devices. The free concerts draw a lot of geezer patrons;  I feel right at home here.

For some reason, my attention is especially drawn to a man sitting ahead a few rows and off to the left.  There is something weary and a little forlorn about him. He is about 70 years old and has the appearance of a former club biker winding down after a hard life. He wears a somewhat battered black leather jacket, and his shoulder -length white hair hangs, curtain -like, from a head that is entirely bald on top. His white beard is now carefully trimmed at the neck and high on the cheeks, but I imagine that back in the day it may have a ferocious thing, a full and prickly bramble. From his sleeves I can see signs of indeterminate tattoos peaking out.

The man does not look overtly unhappy or irritable, but neither is there any expression of contentment or happiness. Most in the crowd, even those sitting alone, are slightly smiling at being part of a crowd listening to pleasant music on a truly wonderful, cool summer night, but this fellow’s expression is blank and best described as resigned and perhaps just slightly morose. I notice that his right leg is slightly shorter than his left, as evidenced by a thick-soled orthopedic shoe on that foot. Is this a congenital problem, I wonder, something that has made him feel different since childhood, or is it the result of some serious motorcycle accident? My imagination, as always, tends toward the dramatic explanation  In any case, I am slightly concerned for his seeming lack of joy tonight.

I glance around the crowd, again taking in the individuals here and there with signs of injury or chronic disability. I am of course only spotting the individuals with obvious visible signs. Many, many more people in the crowd likely have invisible problems or traumas, current or historical, that can't be identified by sight alone. We are all very much alike in this respect.

About the only people who do not yet have some form of wound or pain may be the little kids playing about the aisles and the space in front of the music stage. Some of them have those magic sneakers that flash neon lights in response to some strange generating machinery in the heels; their feet flicker in the night like high-tech fireflies. When the kids got too rambunctious, some of the parents rein them in. I wish they parents would simply let their kids dance. 

One pretty little dark-haired girl in a sun-dress pirouettes in circles with her arms clasped together behind her back, and on each revolution her broad smile reveals deep dimples in her cheeks, evident even from thirty feet away in deepening darkness. 

In the right mood, I sometimes get a precise sense of what a child will look like in old age, or what an adult likely looked like as a small child.  It's as though I see people as lenticular portraits—as toddler, teenager, old-timer—all at the same time. In this little girl dancing to the music, I now see early echoes of an adult I know. When she was a youngster, I'm sure the woman I'm thinking of looked and behaved a lot like this little dancing girl by the lake.

Even these apparently carefree kids, though, will eventually know some woundedness, if they don’t already. It is an unavoidable part of life.

If you think all is a slightly depressing thought to have on such a night, you'd be quite wrong. My mood tonight is not at all melancholy. Instead, I find something reassuring  about the observation, as it seems to me that our shared experience is what unifies the crowd tonight. It is our ability to accept and transcend ordinary human pain and frailty that has brought us all here tonight to enjoy the music and the evening. In the final measure, music, art, and other forms of social communion are really a means of both articulating, and rebelling against,  human limitation.

A sentient being, the mystics will tell you, is any creature who is capable of suffering. On this night, we are all gathered for a free concert in the park as sentient beings, quietly and elegantly sharing the discomfort and the related ecstasy of the human condition. 

It is a cool night, and Ms. Mercurious senses that I’m growing chilly in my shorts. She was wise enough to wear long pants. As she extends her lap blanket to over my bare leg,  I glance down, and realize that what she has offered me is the colorful quilt that my father-in-law was given as a patient undergoing treatment in the hospital for a terminal illness last year. After he passed away early this year, my wife adopted this blanket as a warm remembrance of her dad. This is the blanket with which she now covers my scarred knees, and the warmth it gives me is as much about its symbolic value as its colorful cotton threads. 

As the song ends, the aging biker applauds softly with genuine appreciation. He stands up, and with a slightly arthritic groan he walks past me out of the amphitheater. Our eyes meet as he walks by, and I see he now has a quiet smile on his face.