Old Geezers Out to Lunch

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

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.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

No Time, Like Now

Since I am a Geezer, after all, it's no surprise that the last few years have put me face to face with various intimations of mortality. Recent years have seen us bid farewell to both my father and father-in-law at ages 83 and 90, respectively. Several good friends have become breast-cancer survivors, and even my recent knee injury, though little more than a glorified mechanical issue, has reminded me that the body physical is a resource that wears out eventually. Late last year, I turned 60 years old, and an instant later I'm now looking at my 61st birthday in a few months. It's not that 61feels particularly old to me, but it does remind me of the fact that when another 10 such moments or so, I will be 70 years of age, and at that point it becomes a little hard to ignore the reality.

All of which makes a Geezer consider quality of life and what goals and aspirations one should have when you can no longer pretend that you are not a Geezer.  I find the concept of a "bucket list" to be silly, at the very least; still, one can't ignore wondering where to put your energy and physical ability while the energy and physical ability is still there for the putting.

One of my best friends this week was faced with a medical decision as she concludes treatment for breast cancer. One option would have statistically increased the odds for a longer life, but only by a matter of low single-digit percentages. Following that course of action, though, would give her a 50-50 chance some rather serious side effects that could greatly compromise quality of life. Either way, these things are merely statistical odds, but she chose to think of the option as long life vs. good life. After a period of contemplation at the beach in Santa Monica, she is choosing to maximize the chances for a good quality of life at the possibility of making it shorter. With her good life, she wants to roam the country a bit with a camper trailer she owns, perhaps traveling with her granddaughters from time to time. She wants to write books, and meet people and see things she's not yet met or seen.

Which is a very admirable thing, I believe. And this makes me wonder a bit what I hope to do with the 10 or 15 or perhaps 20 decent years of Geezerhood ahead (for the males in my clan, 80 years of age is a pretty ancient patriarch).

The goals, I realize, are pretty modest and accomplishable. I want to spend some time roaming the southwest US, where the desert relaxes me and connects me to a sense of the earth's majestic age like no other landscape. I also want to spend time in the mountains again—either in Colorado, Canada, or Alaska, where I sense the incredible drama of time. To see some places I've not yet seen,  I want to travel some places with my bride, to other places with good friends. I want to be the daycare provider for grandchildren. I want to once again own a friendly dog.

And I want to walk every street in Minneapolis.

I'm not sure where this last aspiration came from, but I'm sure it has to do with the fact that I've been almost unable to walk for the last month and am thus reminded of how precious physical mobility is. I checked into this, and learned that there are just over 1200 miles of officially sanctioned streets in Minneapolis proper, and doing the math reveals that it should be easily possible to walk this territory over the next 10 years. A pace of 120 miles a year is, after all, less that 2.5 miles a week. In good times, I probably walk that much each day.

So on a pure distance basis, this is laughably easy, though of course in practice it means driving to various neighborhoods, some of which are not particularly safe. And it means doing it on minus-20 degree days in mid-winter. And on days when it is raining. And on some streets that are barely streets at all, but cruddy little alleys behind railroad tracks, etc. etc.  Still it's a modest goal, really.

My son and I were hanging out yesterday. He was, I think, still caring for the invalid in some manner. For the first few weeks of surgical recovery, the family was taking pains not to leave me alone, and with my wife gone for the day, he showed up at the house once again yesterday. I explained to him that I now have limited mobility in the bad knee, enough to let me fold the leg into the car and actually drive myself, but we ended up hanging out anyway, watching the olympics. Then we took a drive to get milk shakes and go to Barnes and Noble. On the way, I mentioned my goal of walking Minneapolis over the next few years, and upon leaving the bookstore, he glanced into my shopping bag and the street map I'd purchased. Shaking his head and said. "I should have figured. You're gonna cross off the streets on this map as you walk them, aren't you?"

There is no time like the present. Early this morning, I drove up to the far reaches of north Minneapolis and walked around three whole blocks, with knee brace unlocked for 30% range of motion. My speed should get better with time.