Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Postcard from Seneca

Behold one smart dude.
Greetings, my fellow aging baby boomers.

It's a commonplace, even the stuff of standup comedy, that we are not aging well. Our generation has been in denial of the aging process since the first of us began to hit our thirties, thirty years ago. Our obsessive jogging, iron-pumping, power-walking and ingestion of anti-aging substances and vitamin supplements has made us the butt of ridicule.

It's partly our own, narcissistic fault, but not entirely our fault. I've been pointing out for years how, when we were kids, the American mass media made a cult of youth, and we all got swept up in that. Our parents and their parents accepted aging as part of life. We, on the other hand, were told that young was good and old was bad, and naturally, when we ourselves began aging, we fought the idea tooth and nail, with every resource available to us. We have not, so far anyway, gone gentle into that good night.

But now that many of us are past sixty, (I'm 57 as I write this) we're gradually cooling into acceptance, realizing that diet and exercise are not going to make death go away. I have noticed a tendency among my contemporaries now to echo the twilight grumbling we have heard over the past decade or so from the generation that preceded us: "Old age is not for the faint-hearted," "Youth is wasted on the young," "Getting old sucks." Yes, with our increasingly bad knees, fallen arches and stiff necks, we're becoming geezers, despite the fact that our generation made the station wagon obsolete, replacing it with the minivan, because we didn't want to be seen driving around in Mom and Dad's car.

So I think the time is right for a word of, well yes, consolation. Grumbling about old age is nothing new. Since death is part of the human experience and always has been, the ages have had much to say about it. You all know the most famous passage in Ecclesiastes, the one about to everything there is a season, etc. The Bible is full of things like that, and so are many other ancient writings.

Which brings me to Seneca. Many of you have never heard of him, many of you have. For those who have not, he was a Roman philosopher of the Stoic school, born about the same time as Christ, c. 4 B.C. He died in A.D. 65, and was a major player in the Roman politics of his day despite ill health, exile and the danger which was never far from politics in the age of Augustus.

The Stoics were characterized by their attitude toward life, their root idea being one of acceptance. If you desire nothing, nothing can be taken away from you, and so forth. Early Christian thinking owes much to the Stoics, although they of course had no belief in the redemptive death or a transcendent God -- what obeisance they paid to the gods of Rome was a question of duty to the state, not allegiance to a personal deity. But how much like Bible verses the following Stoic declarations sound! "What fortune has made yours is not your own;" "The boon that could be given can be withdrawn."

The Stoics' acceptance of what life dishes out, with an ix-nay on kicking and screaming, still echoes for us today. (I will NOT use the currently-fashionable word "resonates;" -- journalists, who imitate each other like parrots, have beaten that word to death.)

I was reading some of Seneca's letters the other day over my morning coffee, and found something he said about old age worthy of jotting down. Jot it down, boomers:

"...We should cherish old age and enjoy it. It is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious when its season is ending. The charms of youth are greatest at the joy of its passing. It is the final glass which pleases the inveterate drinker, the one that sets the crowning touch to his intoxication and sends him off into oblivion. Every pleasure defers until its last its greatest delights. The time of life which offers the greatest delight is the age that sees the downward movement -- not the steep decline -- already begun; in my opinion even the age that stands on the brink has pleasures of its own -- or else the fact of not experiencing the want of any pleasures takes their place. How nice it is to have outworn one's desires and left them behind!" -- Letters From A Stoic. (London: Penguin Books, 1969, 2004). pp. 58.

And now, on to a breakfast of fresh fruit, whole wheat toast and cereal, rather than our parents' familiar bacon and eggs.

But this in full knowledge that there remain 986 days until I turn 60, and tomorrow it will be 985, and not all the fresh fruit and whole wheat toast in the world will stop that.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When We Were Guinea Pigs

I was reading a book on geometry not long ago. I never took geometry in school, and it's a good thing I didn't, because I am hopeless at math. Hopeless. Tell me to add up a column of figures three times and I'll give you three different answers.

If only it had been this simple!
A mediocre student in all of my subjects except English, (I was a champion speller, for what little that was worth)  I nevertheless received only two "Fs" on my report card in all my years between first grade and high school graduation.

Both of those "Fs" were in math classes. In elementary school I was amongst a bunch of kids who did well on the IQ tests the shrinks were always giving kids in the mid-1960s, and as a result I got shuffled into a number of so-called "enrichment" classes.

Unfortunately for me, these classes included "enrichment math," in which I sank like the Titanic. Just because you're good at one thing doesn't mean you're good at everything. I flunked enrichment math in the seventh grade and had to be transferred to "dummy" math, a roomful of snickering little hoodlums whose loftiest aspiration was Juvenile Hall. I just barely squeaked by in "dummy math," and got invited to after-school fights by a number of up-and-coming bullies.

Four years later, in the 11th grade, I flunked basic algebra. I simply could not make sense of all those letters-that-were-supposed-to-stand-for-numbers multiplied and divided by other letters-that-were-supposed-to-stand-for-numbers.  I spent the fall semester of my junior year sitting in the back of the room, silent and hopelessly confused. Beneath my "F" the following January, my algebra teacher (who was also our school's varsity wrestling coach) checked the box marked "Apparent difficulty with subject." Duh. I transferred at midyear to Humanities, which was more my speed: all we had to do was look at paintings, read poems and essays, watch films of people like Toscanini and Jascha Heifetz and then write about what we saw and heard. Easy.

So why, this late in life, was I trying to swot up geometry all of a sudden?  Believe it or not, it was because of an interest in another discipline, namely, philosophy. I never took a philosophy course in college, and decided not long ago that this was a gap in my learning which I might be able to plug with a little self-discipline. I've been reading through Frederick Copleston's nine-volume History of Philosophy.  I'm up to Volume 5. Among the things I learned in Volume 1 was that the Greeks set a great deal of store by a knowledge of geometry. So I went to the public library and checked out a book entitled Geometry Civilized by J.L. Heilbron.

"Civilized" or not, I got as far as Chapter Three before I crashed and burned. Geometry as taught in the modern world involves algebra:

∆ABC≈DEF/HOL (XQG) (CBS/NBC)= (1+1/n)^n (Smile with tongue ≥ A™ C©) (PDQ) = B.S. See ya.

But perusing the early chapters of this popular book on managing triangles, rectangles, etc. I came across an abbreviation which gave me a chill followed by a flood of bad memories:

The slide-rule, obsolete now that everyone
has a calculator built into their iPhone, struck
terror into my heart when I was ten.

It stood for School Mathematics Study Group.

SMSG was the brainchild of 1950s educational do-gooders, in response to the federal government's panic over a perceived dropping-off of technical and scientific skills among American students in the period following World War II. The Cold War was underway now, and the Russians had launched Sputnik, getting into space before we did. Terrified that the Communist bloc was about to outstrip the United States in science and technology, the U.S. government launched an all-out offensive to "catch up."

Naturally, this began with the schools, and suddenly we elementary-school children of the mid-sixties, whose chief tortures until then had been multiplication tables and long division, (bad enough in themselves) were bombarded with what was dubbed the "new math." Each of us was handed a new math textbook, and an arcane, mysterious sliding ruler with tiny numbers and Greek symbols all over it, (of which I could never make head nor tail) and our teachers began hectoring us with things like Base Eight and the binomial system (upon which modern computer programs are based.) You know, the nuts n' bolts, everyday information that everyone needs to know.

Kids who already had a bent for such stuff took to the "new math" like flies to rotten food. The rest of us sat and tuned it out, as bewildered as we were bored. I don't need to tell you that I became hopelessly lost after the new textbook's title page.

Looking back, it was all so stupid. Life and history shake themselves out, and the kids who were destined to be engineers for Boeing or software developers for Bill Gates did well with this junk. The rest of us foundered, and it could have been predicted. Trying to teach abstract mathematical theory to a pack of eleven year-olds who can just manage eight times eight is 64 and have trouble remembering where to put a decimal point is a waste of time.

But that was the sixties for you. There was a general belief that the solutions to many of society's problems were to be found in government, which would issue fiats to school boards, which dumped them on teachers, who in turn had to deal with us little clock-watching scholars, who were waiting only for recess, lunch and 3:15, when we could all go home.

Then there was sex. With the war-baby generation (those born 1939-1945) inventing Free Love on college campuses all over the country, plus the growing popularity of Playboy magazine, the explosion of frank sexuality in literature which followed the lifting of the ban on Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in 1962 and a flood of suddenly-liberated sexual candor in Hollywood, the do-gooders panicked again. Children should be told the facts of life early enough to prepare them for our newly sex-soaked culture. Once again, this being the sixties, it was decided that schools were the best place for children to learn about such things. Parents couldn't be trusted with these delicate matters, only the pros could.

Needless to say, this touched off a nationwide firestorm of hissy-fits on both sides. Some parents did not agree that their children should be learning about sex in the classroom. They should be learning about it the way their parents did: from their peers in the street.

It's been almost 50 years since all this brouhaha blew up, and no doubt educators have become more sophisticated in their methods. But we were on the front lines, we ten-year-olds of 1966, and let me tell you, our teachers and administrators were, to put it mildly, all at sea.

They had been told to teach this stuff to us, but given minimal direction as to how to go about it. And remember, in those days our teachers and administrators were people born between World War I and the Depression, when girls who kissed on the second date were considered loose women, and writers like Hemingway and Norman Mailer were forbidden to use the word "fuck." As those playing cat-and-mouse with the censor will, they came up with an expedient: spelling the word wrong. Hemingway writes of "the mucking tanks" in For Whom The Bell Tolls; 20 years later, in The Naked and the Dead, Mailer did his own end-run by simply foreshortening the word: "Fug you." But by 1963 writers no longer had to resort to such half-measures, and educators soon had themselves a mucking problem: they had to teach us about the birds and the bees and at the same time cope with their own squeamishness about the subject.

Right away they decided that segregation was in order. Little boys and little girls must not be taught about such delicate things in one group. My school was issued two separate and distinct sex education pamphlets: the girls got one called A Girl And Her Body. We boys got one called A Boy And His Physique. The girls were lectured about things such as menstruation in one room; we boys were harangued -- in very vague terms, as I'm sure the girls were too -- in another room. We were strictly enjoined not to discuss with the girls anything we had been told, and the girls were told the same. In other words, our school had been instructed to teach us about sex, but allowing us to talk about it amongst ourselves was where our teachers could draw the line. No guidelines had been issued regarding any such hanky-panky, so it was forbidden.

And of course the prohibition was ignored. By the end of the day some of my playground pals had acquired copies of the "girls' book" and were flashing it around privately, sniggering.

Yes, unfortunately for our teachers, all of this came a bit too late. By 1966 Hollywood had been bombarding the country with push-the-envelope films for several years. The popular James Bond movies, then starring Sean Connery, were notorious for their "sexy" content, and by the time we sat down in "sex ed" class, four entries in the Bond series of films had already hit the silver screen, not to mention then-racy fare like Tom Jones starring Albert Finney and Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. There was no movie rating system then (it wouldn't come along until 1968) and many of my friends had seen these films, although my own mother was very prudish about such things; I wouldn't see my first Bond film for another year.

But the truth is, we kids may not have known about chromosomes and egg cells and sperm cells and DNA and all that jazz, but we were more savvy than our teachers gave us credit for, and the very popular culture for the shock of which they were trying to prepare us was responsible. For us boys of that era, slipping across the street to "the canyon" to hide behind a bush and take peeks at a copy of Playboy that one of us had swiped from his father's den was already a rite of passage.  Dirty talk on schoolyards was as old as schoolyards, and given the prevailing climate, it should have surprised no one that we youngsters already knew a bit about what penises and vaginas were used for besides urination.

To this day I pity the school nurse who had to get up and address us. We sensed how nervous she was with the same acuity that barricuda have for smelling blood. One of my particularly nasty classmates, a freckle-faced, leering little smartass named Dick Shumacher, (think Eddie Haskel) decided to give her a hard time. After she had mumbled her little speech about sperms and eggs, Dick raised his hand and asked, "How is the sperm transferred to where the egg is?" He grinned as he asked this, of course.

And he got the reaction he wanted: the poor old lady nearly choked with embarrassment. "Well, ummm, it comes with mating," she managed to stammer, then changed the subject as quickly as she could. Kids can be so rotten.

Whatever it was that school boards, administrators and teachers were trying to accomplish with all of this, their efforts ultimately served little purpose. What good is teaching ten-year-olds about chromosomes and egg cells? None of us believed that babies came from a vegetable garden; we all knew, even at our tender age, that fucking had something to do with it, and that was the only part of it, at that stage of life anyway, in which we were interested at all. Genetics could wait until college biology class.

Ironically, the only part of the whole deal which aroused (no pun intended) our genuine interest was the one part that our teachers were determined to avoid talking about. Instead, they lectured us on the physical changes in your body which attend puberty (already being experienced by some of us.) Yawn.

Yes, it's true: when we sixth-graders of Kellogg Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, circa 1966, took our seats in the cafeteria to face our first sex-education lectures, we watched our teachers and our school nurse, following the guidelines of our intrepid principal, Mr. Larry P. Blocker, accomplish the impossible.

They managed to make sex as boring as algebra.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

I Was Just A Pawn In Your Game of FAT!

The title of this post is taken from an episode of the old Bob Newhart Show.

Newhart, as those old enough to remember will know, played a Chicago psychologist on this program. As psychologists do, he had groups that met weekly to discuss special behavioral problems. In one episode his group consisted of overweight people seeking to confront that particular problem. In an attempt to help one of his patients, a particularly obnoxious fat man played by Cliff Osmond, Bob persuades his secretary Carol, played by Marcia Wallace, to go out on a date with this guy. Osmond's character shows Carol such a cruelly rotten time that the next day she upbraids Newhart with one of my favorite lines in all of TV-dom:

"You USED me, Bob! I was just a pawn in your game of fat!"

Now, I will be the first one to declare that Morgan Spurlock, who made the film Super Size Me  a few years ago, was so full of shit his eyes were brown. Spurlock's thesis was that there is some gigantic corporate conspiracy among companies like McDonald's and KFC to make people fat by selling them fattening food.

Stuff n' nonsense, I say. If I offer you a double cheeseburger with whipped cream, you have the choice of accepting it or not. Nobody FORCES anyone to eat fast food. People who dine at Burger King every day are on their own lookout; if you're dumb enough to live on Whoppers, fries and take-out pizza, that's your problem, not Pizza Hut's. Sensible people eat fast food occasionally, you know, like myself. I eat fast food maybe two or three times a year at most. If I go and stuff myself with Taco Bell burritos every day at lunchtime, my weight is my fault, not Taco Bell's, or the government's, or the Book-of-the-Month Club's or anyone else's. Period.

But there is no getting around one immutable fact: America IS collectively overweight. I've been hearing about it for years, and the point was driven home to me rather forcefully last weekend when I went to the Target store with my sister. No, it wasn't the shock troops of the Adipose Army waddling about the store that made the point; I'm so used to seeing people with beer guts and big butts that I more or less pay no heed anymore. I just don't look at them. If you want to see some particularly grotesque examples, which, by the way, have been making their way around the Internet for quite some time now, just Google "Walmartians." Some person or persons have been going around taking clandestine photos of Wal Mart shoppers and then circulating them on the 'net for laughs. Most have to do with the outlandish clothing you often see on people who shop at Wal Mart, but a great many combine the accoutrements with the sometimes-unbelievable bulk that fills and often overflows them.

The American consumer, 2013?
No, my moment of revelation (and my sister's as well) came when she and I were looking for sweats for ourselves. Even here in southern California, winter nights can get chilly, especially when the vaunted Santa Ana condition sets in, which forces dry air from the desert over to the coastal areas. In summer the Santa Ana brings often-record high temperatures. (San Diego's all-time high, 113 F., was reached in 1963, when I was in the fourth grade here. It was so hot our principal gave us a day off from school.) In winter, the Santa Ana brings delightful days, dry, clear and cool, with unlimited visibility. The obverse of that is at night, when temperatures sometimes get down into the 40s. To southern Californians, that's cold. When I stay at my sister's house during the summer, I sleep in
my underwear beneath a sheet. In January I bundle up in sweatshirts and sweatpants and sleep under a quilt.

So we were looking for these accessories, but immediately we encountered a problem: almost everything we looked at was either extra large, double extra-large or even triple extra-large.

I recently returned from overseas, and had been out of the mainstream for a while. "Are people really getting this FAT?" I asked.

"Look around."

Yup. pus-guts and broad beams, every which way, from the women's section to hardware.

Now, I used to have a few extra pounds on me, I'll admit. Spare tire. Love handles. I'm 6' 1" and when I was at my heaviest, about six years back, I weighed in 213. I went to a doctor, who put me on a special diet -- liquid meal substitutes combined with medication to reduce my appetite, and yes, I did drop a few pounds then. A couple of years later I quit drinking liquor, and the change was even more noticeable. (Booze is loaded with calories because it's loaded with sugar.) In about three months I dropped 25 pounds. My weight dropped down to 172, just seven pounds more than I weighed in high school. My sister thought I looked unhealthy. "Eat a damn Snickers!" she urged me.

I prefer Payday bars, so I ate a few of those. Cookies, too. My body, deprived of the sugar in alcohol, had decided it wanted to get it from somewhere else.

Anyway, Carla and I searched high, low and sideways at Target for sweatpants marked "M," my current size, but in vain. Target's clothing section could be renamed The Blimp Barn ("Where The Lardos Land!") Finally I settled for "L," the smallest thing I could find. They're a little baggy on me, but what the hell? I only wear them as pajamas.

Whose fault is all of this? Spurlock's insipid movie was obviously grinding a political axe, displaying the Culture of Victimhood in full flower: "You are all fat because the evil corporations have conspired to make you that way! Government! Regulate McDonald's!"

Horseshit. This has nothing to do with corporate conspiracy and everything to do with one of the most potent forces in the universe: human stupidity. You know, the same spirit I see displayed when I see some cretin riding a bicycle down the street, steering with one hand and blabbering into a cellphone with the other. Anyone who learned to ride a bike as a child knows that when you're steering a bike with only one hand you have no control over it. If that idiot hits a pothole or even a speed-bump, he's going right over the handlebars for a busted head.

And yet, they do it. Take some comfort in the fact that Americans aren't alone in this. The Chinese, for example, are as stupid as we are. I just got back from China last month, and everywhere I looked in that country I saw people not only riding bikes with one hand and yakking with the other, but even motor scooters. It would seem that the tendency to live life as a coma-in-motion is not an exclusively American invention.

Of course what really lies behind all of this is the principle of the route of least resistance. Or as one critic of cell phone jabber in automobiles put it, "People do stupid things because they can." If you empower people to do something insane-but-convenient, they'll do it because it's convenient. Because it's the easiest way. And they won't think much about it until they go over the handlebars. Maybe not even then.

That's why America is a prize-winnning hog at the state fair. Packing yourself a reasonably-healthy lunch to take to work with you is a chore you can avoid by popping down to the corner Arco station for a frozen burrito and a soda. Why bother wasting 20 minutes cooking yourself a couple of scrambled eggs and a piece of toast after your coffee in the morning, and washing them down with some orange juice, when it's easier to pull into McDonald's and order a sausage Egg McMuffin (with potatoes on the side, and maybe a cinnamon roll?) Why, after a long day at work, knock yourself out making dinner for yourself and your two kids when it's easier to pick up the phone and order a Four-Meat pizza from Dominos?

The route of least resistance. It has made the fast-food chains into billionaires, but unlike Spurlock I insist that it's not their fault. They only supply what the public demands. Remember a little thing called the marketplace? Supply-and-demand? Nobody's going to sell something that people don't want. Plenty have tried. Products have failed by the millions because the public didn't want them. I can even cite an example from -- yes! -- the fast-food industry. Years ago KFC, still called Kentucky Fried Chicken at the time, decided to offer ribs. A big advertising campaign started, ("The colonel's got RIBS?") but the company quickly learned that the public wanted chicken from KFC, not ribs, and ribs were discontinued.

The market only offers what people demand. Anything else isn't profitable and doesn't last.

Then there is the separate subject of child obesity. It's an offshoot of the first. Children eat what their parents make available to them, and if they would rather eat pizza and then sit down in front of a screen and play computer games like Mega-Homicide and Splatter Man than go outside and work the calories off playing sports or chasing each other up trees, well, that's their parents' responsibility, not the government's or Wendy's.

And so to breakfast, as Pepys might have said. I don't know what Pepys had for breakfast on Sept. 24, 1662 (although he might let me know were I to check -- he kept one hell of a diary), but it wasn't a Big Mac, and he probably looked at his food and noted what it was before digging in. Diarists notice things. And think about them. We need more of that. Thinking, that is, rather than blaming. Also, Pepys didn't die overweight, and we also need more of that.