We the people

What does the preamble to the Constitution really say? If you back away from it far enough so that you can see only the outlines, you find some surprising things. Here is today’s example

We, the people of the United States, in order to achieve a number of common goals (six are specifically listed) adopt this constitution. The logical flow is certainly clear. We have some common goals we would like to achieve. In order to help us do that, we adopt this constitution.

What happens if there are other goals, more attractive goals, that some us hold. What if some of these goals are in conflict with the ones we have specified? It doesn’t mean that we don’t have common goals; it means only that there are other goals that are more important to some of us.

Consider for instance “securing the blessings of liberty” and “promoting the general welfare.” We should probably take “liberty” as “independence from other nations,” especially Great Britain. It could not mean “liberty” as freedom from constraint. You can’t have a society in which constraint is not available to society at large to be exercised against breakers of the agreement. And furthermore, it cannot mean that the government is not empowered to specify the procedures for achieving the general welfare.

It seems odd that these two should have come into such conflict in the Covid pandemic. “Liberty” has been interpreted in some states as freedom to maintain active pools in which the virus can mutate and attack other citizens. This, of course, prolongs the pandemic and puts fellow citizens at risk of disease and death. It opposes the general welfare in the most flagrant ways.

When we go back to the formal structure of the Preamble—we, the people, in order to achieve certain common goals, adopt this Constitution to help us pursue them—there is no reason to think that “liberty” would come to be interpreted as freedom to oppose the general welfare, but it has.

There are two elements in this degradation. The first, alluded to above and illustrated by the anti-vax collage is that “liberty” has been expanded to impractical dimensions. The second is that common knowledge of what the “general welfare” requires has been denied in principle.

It was always the case, of course, that just what constituted the general welfare could not be independently inferred by each citizen. The idea was always that the stratum of citizens with the best sense of what the nation required would be trusted to say what that is. That is what has made taxes and military drafts possible. But if any formulation of “the general welfare” can be denied as without basis—a fabrication, perhaps a plot—then the general welfare can be asserted generally, but it cannot be specified. The implications of the general welfare for our own actions also cannot be specified. We need to be able to trust some account of what to do or we will never effectively coordinate our actions; that means that to the extent the general welfare requires the cooperation of the whole society, we will fail.

And we are failing.

What we would have to do differently in order to succeed is not a mystery. First, we would need to revise our understanding of “liberty” as the right to do whatever I think is right or, more commonly, whatever I think should be allowed. It cannot be that. Second, we would need to trust the most reliable notion of the general welfare we can get. No point in holding out for a perfect one. The best one we can get will be good enough.

Then, having resolved that one conflict—liberty v. the general welfare—we can give our best effort toward solving our most urgent common problems. We are not doing that now.

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“You can’t do it with turtles”

That line comes from George Fairbairn, the keeper of the turtles at the London Zoo. These are the turtles that William G. and Naeara H. stole and returned to the sea. William confesses that although he feels good about having launched the turtles, the project doesn’t seem to have launched him.

“You can’t do it with turtles, says the keeper, “but with people, you never know straightaway what does what. Maybe launching them did launch you, but you don’t know it yet.”

In 1975, Russell Hoban published Turtle Diary. Ten years later, they made a very engaging movie of it, starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley. It is the story of how two Londoners who are living bleak, unsatisfying lives, learn how to live more richly. I like the book better than the movie because the book separates the narrators. One chapter to William G, then one to Neaera H.

I’ve read the book many times by now, always one narrator at a time, and still I find new things. These are meanings that were always there in the sense that they were always available. I guess I find the meanings I am ready to find.

In her first chapter, Naeara delivers herself of this line: “I am tired of meek and cuddly creatures, my next book will be about a predator.” In fact, there will very likely not be a next book and what is wrong with her previous subjects—Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow—is not how cuddly they are, but how safe. Getting over the need to be “safe” is Naeara’s challenge in this story.

She does pretty well. In one of her last chapters, she has this:

I was [had been] waiting for the self inside me to come forward to the boundaries from which it has long ago withdrawn. Life would be less quiet and more dangerous, life is risky at the borders. Gillian Vole and Delia Swallow life in safe places. “Come,” I said to the self inside me, “Come out and take your chance.”

The story of how she did that is a different story than the one that called to me yesterday. Yesterday, I was attracted by how she describes this “coming alive” process to herself. Here are some of the ways.

She thinks of the turtles that she and William H. freed from the London Zoo and put into the aquarium. “All they had was themselves,” she says, “but they would keep going until they found what was in them to find.”

And then about herself:

No one could make me freer by putting me somewhere else. I had as much as the turtles: myself. [2] At least I, too, could die on the way to where I wanted to be. Gillian Vole! Not enough, not nearly enough. [1]

No one could make me freer by putting me somewhere else. I had as much as the turtles: myself. [2] At least I, too, could die on the way to where I wanted to be. Gillian Vole! Not enough, not nearly enough. [1]

As she begins to move toward more awareness, she has a moment when she looks around her apartment and sees it as full of things she doesn’t need and hasn’t cared about for a long time. Very sensibly, she packs them up and gets rid of them. But there are things in the apartment that can’t be dealt with quite that way.

She sees that her apartment has had “invisible wires criss-crossed in patterns of pain that had been there for years. I saw myself in days past, years past, stepping carefully and trying to keep my balance.

She also sees that she has been nose to nose with one particular pixel for a long time. She doesn’t say “pixel;” this is a 1975 book. She talks about the way a picture in a newspaper is made up of many half-tone dots. The idea expands really fast for her.

Each incidence of anything in life is just a single dot and my face is so close to that dot that I can’t see what it’s part of. I shall never be able to stand back far enough to see the whole picture. I shall die in blind ignorance and rage.”

Incidentally, if you have ever been there—I have—you learn that you don’t get to that ultimate despair while you are in the worst of it. That despair comes as you begin to come out of it and get a look at where you have been. So I take this wail of despair as a very good sign and I begin to have high hopes for Naeara H.

Thinks work out very well for Naeara. For one thing, she begins to have much more realistic expectations of life—of her life. There may never be another Delia Swallow and other cuddly creatures book, but the author is going to be just fine. And for another thing, she makes a friend of the zookeeper, who has been a part of her background for as long as the plot to rescue the turtles has occupied her.

These changes show up in her writing, of course. She is a writer, after all, and this is the last thing she writes:

Stiff but not formal
A dead cat says hello
This winter morning.

[1] The predator she bought, a water beetle, the hoped-for subject of yet another children’s book, wasn’t enough either.
[2] Not true, of course. Any biologist could tell you what resources the turtles have that Naeara has never dreamed of. Still, it’s a nice metaphor.

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Sugar and Spice?

The question of gender norms is contentious. (I like to begin with understatement.) I intend today some observations of this contentious subject which I expect will not be contentious. We’ll see.

Judge Barbara Milano Keenan of the 4th Circuit wrote the opinion, which holds that the Charter Day School (CDS) violated the constitutional rights of the girls enrolled in their school by requiring them to wear skirts. I’m going to offer a few quotes from Judge Keenan’s opinion first.

“The record is clear. By reducing girls to outdated caricatures of the “fairer” sex, the gender stereotypes animating the skirts requirement negatively impact female students throughout their educational experience. CDS’ stereotyped rationale for the skirts requirement – that girls are “fragile” and require protection by boys – is both offensive and archaic.”

She also wrote:

“Another expert opined that the skirts requirement “contradict[s] modern educational practices that foster independence, agency, and self-confidence,” by “teach[ing] both boys and girls that girls should value appearance over agency, and attractiveness over autonomy.”

And further:

“According to CDS, its female students are “fragile” and must acquiesce to having boys hold umbrellas over them when it rains. Considering this jaw-dropping assessment of girls’ capabilities, we may never know the full scope or all the consequences of CDS’ blatant, unapologetic discrimination against its female students. But the skirts requirement, harmless as it may seem to the defendants, requires only a pull of the thread to unravel the lifelong social consequences of gender discrimination.”

I think those three are enough to give the flavor of Judge Keenan’s views. What I would like to do is to look at the structure of the argument. The gender styles I will consider here are of two kinds: a) similar and b) different.

The point under consideration is that there are costs to girls at CDS of being required to adopt distinct outfits. I would think, just looking at the question broadly that either set of gender styles—similar and different—would grant benefits and impose costs. If you were starting at the beginning—a choice societies do not have—you would ask what the costs and benefits of each set are.

So you would say that treating boys and girls as equal,(and here “equal” mean “identical”) has these costs and these benefits and that treating boys and girls as equal but dissimilar has those costs and those benefits. When you were done,
you would look at that pattern of costs and benefits and say that the one pattern is better than the other.

Doesn’t that sound sensible? Impossible, of course, but sensible. In actual fact, societies trail their histories behind them like so many tin cans. Or they build on their unique foundations the way only they can. Take your pick; nobody starts from scratch.

The wrong way to do it is to pick the style you don’t like and to say that it imposes costs. Yes it does. Every style imposes costs. What we want to know is how great the costs are and who is required to pay them; also what the benefits are and who receives them. An “assessment” that looks at one model of gender styles and finds that it imposes costs doesn’t deserve the term “assessment.”

That’s the part I am counting on you to see as uncontroversial. You can’t argue in favor of one or another gender style without upsetting people, of course, but I am hoping it is still possible to argue that asking a good question is better than asking a bad question.

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Many positive statements could have been made

Former President Trump [1] went on a platform called Truth Social on Thursday evening and offered this assessment of the January 6 Committee hearings:

“So the Unselect Committee of political HACKS refuses to play any of the many positive witnesses and statements, refuses to talk of the Election Fraud and Irregularities that took place on a massive scale,”

There is a lot to be unhappy about in this little paragraph, but the thing that really bothers me most is part about “positive witnesses and statements.” The Committee is working with what can be shown to be true and what can be plausibly inferred from that information. The scale goes from true to untrue. Trump is proposing, instead, a scale that goes from “good for us” to “bad for us.”

It isn’t ridiculous for Trump to say that there were many balloting irregularities. Those charges were made at the time, investigated at the time, and rebutted at the time. So Trump’s allegations are false, but they are not ridiculous.

But “many positive statements and witnesses” is ridiculous. If the charges against Trump—that he did what he is shown to have done—could be rebutted by these positive witnesses, that would be important. But I hear in Trump’s protest, what he said to Brad Raffensperger of Georgia, “All I need is another 11, 000 votes. Find them.”

Any coach who has lost a close game has had fantasies of cozying up to the scorer and saying “All I need is 11 more points, and I will have won.” You watch a runner stopped just short of a first down and you want to say to the Line Judge, “All I need is a few more inches.”

The proper answer to these pleas is, “Coach, it doesn’t work that way.”

The perspective in these examples is that the rules of the game ought not be followed if they don’t produce a win for my team. In the era of instant replay, you can show that a called ball was actually over the plate, but the game still goes by the plate umpire’s call. Even calls that can be overturned, like “he was out of bounds when he caught the ball” are overturned on the basis of what we now know really happened. They are not changed because the coach who is unhappy about the call gets to change the calls he does’t like. “Many positive calls could have been made?”

[1] Former Presidents are customarily referred to as “President.” No one bothers to say “Former President Carter” or “Former President Bush.” It is different with Trump, of course, because he does not consider himself a former President.

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Happy and Loyal Women

Every now and then, you see and ad and you wonder who in the world they had in mind when they created that one. That’s how I felt when I saw this one

And how did I see this one? Well, our choir director sends out to the choir copies of or versions the music we should be familiar with by rehearsal. The device he uses to send these is free, which means it will have advertising. This is one of the ads. It was at the top of the column of ads for several weeks. I noticed it the first week—who wouldn’t?—but I didn’t start wondering about it for several weeks afterward. And what I wondered was this: who is this ad for?

The woman is there so you will read the text. Youngish, attractive; the little affiliative tilt to the head. Fine. She looks like someone you might want to affiliate with. It’s the traits that bother me. This dating site features “happy” and “loyal” women.

I think I could justify “happy” in the text. You don’t want to date dismal women. But on a dating site, “happy” seems too much. Is she always happy? Are there things she is happy about? Is she “happy” no matter what?

I wouldn’t want to characterize myself as knowledgeable about dating sites, but I did have a very interesting experience of online dating in my late 60s, and I have thought about these things in a way very few old men would have thought about them. I would have been puzzled if a woman had put in her profile that she was “happy.”

I don’t know any men who wouldn’t like to think of themselves as able to “make their wives happy”—to be a part of her life that tickles her or intrigues her so that she likes having you around. For myself, I was looking for a woman who was content. Not someone who needed a date or a boyfriend (he terms to use get a little wobbly for old people) but someone ready to invest in a new relationship to see what would happen.

“Happy no matter what” would have made me uncomfortable in a profile. As a part of the dating site’s ad, it’s just a puzzle. It isn’t my favorite puzzle though. For that, I’d have to vote for “loyal.” You can get in touch, by using this dating site, with women who are “loyal.” As a personal trait to feature in a dating app, that seems even odder than “happy.”

Who are they loyal to? What other traits have had to learn to take a back seat to loyalty? The app seems aimed at men who prize loyalty as if it is something they have been missing. Have they married before and to women who were not loyal? I would have thought that loyalty is something that would develop in the relationship. As part of a larger relationship, you know what you are being loyal to because you know who you are being loyal to.

Still, I guess you can’t put “willing to develop relationships that are worth being loyal to” on a dating app.

I may be overthinking this. I do that sometimes. Still, it seems to me that if you are going to put money into advertising, you would like to tailor the ad to the market you want to attract. The model isn’t glamorous in the least, for instance. That would be another market. This market is defined, I think, by men who want a relationship with an attractive woman who is happy and who is inclined to be loyal.

The whole pitch gives me a very uncomfortable feeling.

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I might be angry

I think I have the standard array of kinds of anger. How would you know for sure? Still, I get angry and I watch other people get angry. I see people that I think are probably angry but who don’t know it. I see people who know they are angry and who are trying not to splash it on passersby.

But when it is happening in me, it isn’t always clear. The hot angers and the cold angers are clear, of course. I feel them to be “passions” in the old sense of the word, in which they are active and I am passive. They act on me. But there is another kind of anger that I feel as a vague uneasiness.

I know that “uneasy” isn’t very helpful. Let me try some analogies. It’s a little like vertigo. You know which way is up and which way is down, but things don’t look that way at the moment. It’s a little like the feeling you have when you stub your toe and it hasn’t started to hurt yet. You know the sequence so well; still, there is a time between the bump and the pain when you are feeling something that doesn’t have a name. It does have a signal function. You know what it means; you just don’t know what it feels like. Or it’s like the first signals of nausea. These signals establish that something is wrong and then you are going to start to feel nauseated shortly, but you don’t feel that way yet.

As Bette and I have gotten to know each other better—we met in January of 2005—I have begun to be more willing to say, “I think I’m angry.” Bette used to say, very sensibly, “About what?” And I would say, “Not sure yet. Workin’ on it.” By now, this is familiar territory, so she says, “Let me know when you find something out.”

I don’t always find out, actually, but I usually do. Feeling like these are like the message the cop gets in the British crime shows I like so much. “Meet me at the train station at 9:00 and I’ll tell you something you need to know.” That’s what these early angers are like. I do the kinds of things that have some prospect of clarifying the message. I go hang out with some people or go for a bike ride or do a little more work on one of the essays I am always working on. Usually, one or the other of those things—or maybe its just the passage of time—bring some clarity.

The clarity is a movement from unease to some hypothesis or other about just what it is. A hypothesis is a great help. You can test a hypothesis. Maybe an acquaintance made a remark that hit the target and started making things happen and I just didn’t notice. Now I realize what he really meant and I can try a name out on this particular “making things happen.”

If I’m right about that, it often brings a good deal of clarity. It’s like putting in one piece of the puzzle and all of a sudden you see the outline of the object. So now I have a pretty good idea what the source of my anger is That’s a really good moment for me because now I get to make choices. I like making choices.

If, in hindsight, I decide that the remark was a deliberate provocation, then I will need to decide if it is more like a fart or more like an opening salvo. If it was a frivolous insult and really had more to do with how he was feeling at the time, I can safely let it go. Maybe open a window. If it was an opening salvo, then I need to do something or it is just going to get worse.

There is the question, of course, of just what to do. Tit for tat is sometimes exactly the right thing. If the opening salvo was part of the process of locating some poor schmuck who can’t defend himself, then tit for tat says, “I’m not the one you are looking for.”

Sometimes letting this one pass, but signaling that there will be a response to the next one is the right thing. Sometimes, just bringing it up to the surface is the right thing. There are, as you would expect, all kinds of ways to bring the issue—hypothesized issue—to the surface. I like something like, “When you said X, what did you mean?” There are other phrasings, of course. “I thought you said X. That’s the way I heard it. Did you say that and, if you did, what did you mean by it?”

A currently popular style is to say that X hurt your feelings, the theory being that you are the one who knows whether your feelings are hurt or not. That doesn’t work very well for me because I don’t always know how I am feeling. But it also has the disadvantage of moving the question away from what is meant to what the emotional outcome was. That’s not really the direction I want the conversation to go. I like to get clear on intentions and outcomes. Those are the things that matter most to me.

Those are the things that help me decide what, if anything, I am going to do. When I am sure that I am angry and I am sure the feeling arose from that particular interaction (hypothesis confirmed) and I have decided how best to respond, then I am pretty much at ease. I can wish it hadn’t happened. I can wish I had not provoked it, which is always a possibility. But if I know what to do about it, I’m pretty much OK.

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Older and Wiser, but TMV

My brother Mark is kind enough to keep track of my blog’s birthday. It, thedilettantesdilemma.com is seventeen years old today. It has been a long time since the first blog, when I explored the question of where, exactly, we get the word “blog.” The short answer is the the b- of web log assimilates to log making it blog. The longer answer has to do with actually logs, pieces that were once parts of trees.

We hear so much about people “sharing” too much information. TMI has therefore become a widely recognizable observation. That’s not the issue I want to raise today. I want to consider TMV: “too many variables.” [1]

George Carlin has been the object of a lot of conversation recently because of his HBO special. Carlin was not exactly a part of my developmental experience. Stan Freberg was. I remember sitting in a White Castle on Main Street in Dayton, Ohio listening to the juke box play “John and Marcia,” a selection that featured Freberg saying those two words (only those two words) with a variety of emotional colorings. Somebody paid a dime for that.

Carlin was not a part of my own development, but it was a big part of my family’s development. My kids were my access point to his humor and allusions. I listened to him because they thought he was funny; and then I thought he was funny, too, for most of the same reasons.

But my daughter, Dawne, says that following the same process, her sons put her in touch with Dave Chappell and Bill Burr. As she sees it, Chappell and Burr and part of the family’s developmental process, not her own.

So humor develops in a linear manner? I wanted here a representation of a very confused person. I think I chose well.

This is where all the variables come in. Humor looks linear sometimes because successful comics give recognition to their mentors, but of course they adapt what they learned from their mentors as well. So if you can say that famous comic Z was the protégé of Y, who in turn was the protégé of X, there appears to be a kind of linear development there.

Also, there is the sense that humor explores the rub points of a culture It treats discrepancies in a humorous way. But we know that the rub points change over time. Humor that relies on being “cutting edge” finds its edge dulled as the shock value drains away. Commonly, the solution is to move on, to find another sensitive topic or to violate the norms governing the current topic is a more flagrant way.

But this kind of development isn’t at all linear. In fact, I am not at all sure it isn’t circular. Humor has been seen since the time of the Shakespearean fools as a way to deflate the pretentious. Surely what we are pretentious about moves in a great cycle from one kind of thing to another. Just tracking virtue claims alone, there are eras where wealth is lampooned, then status, then piety, the bourgeois respectability, and then conformity, and then non-conformity. Does that sound linear to you.

So the new comics need to distinguish themselves from their mentors and also to address the newly available targets of their era. And their fans need to accept that kind of humor as a contribution to their own repertoires or to their children’s repertoires. The children need to have a humor that distinguishes themselves from their parents and also some that invites the parents in as junior members. Jokes are tried out. Eyeballs are rolled. Subjects are changed.

So my current position is that this succession of comics has too many variables for me to understand it now. Nothing about this complexity prevents me from enjoying it, however, and I am a big fan of the humor that families can enjoy together but just hinting as a joke they all share.

[1] For those of you whose thoughts went first to the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (TMV), I wish you well. For the rest of us “TMV is a simple rod-shaped helical virus (Fig. 13.20) consisting of centrally located single- stranded RNA (5.6%) enveloped by a protein coat (94.4%)

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Having “Grit”

Here is a line from Thomas Friedman’s column in the New York Times this morning.

“In short, we are seeing a national movement that is telling us publicly and loudly: WE WILL GO THERE” The subject of “We..” is in the previous paragraph. It is “Trump and his supporters.”. And “go there” means “ignore the popular vote and its implications for the electoral vote and elect Republicans no matter what.” That is what “Go there” means.

But that’s not the way it is expressed by the people who are going to do it. People who are going to violate their oath to support the Constitution of the United States don’t call it that. Always, the first step is to provide another context.

In this new context, what would be bad behavior otherwise, is now good behavior. This is the example that came first to mind. In the British TV show, Endeavour, Fred Thursday is the senior officer. He does what needs to be done as he sees the matter. His assistant, Morse, has a much more formal sense of what the law allows and what it does not. You would think that when it becomes necessary to beat information out of a reluctant informant, that Thursday would justify his behavior by saying how important it is to some other issues.

That’s not the way he puts it to Morse. The real question is, “Do you have the grit” to do what needs to be done. This is Roger Allam as Inspector Fred Thursday. [1] Morse has said that by doing this, Thursday has “crossed the line;” he has gone over to the other side. Thursday rejects that. It’s only a question, says Thursday, of whether you have the grit. The clear implication is that Morse in lacking in courage.

But even so, “courage” is a commonly held virtue. “Grit” is a “real man” word. It is an “are you fit to be a cop” word. It defines the job so as to include beating information out of informants and the unwillingness to do that is just unfitness for the job.

And you get to mean all that in public without ever saying it out loud.

That’s how I hear Friedman’s “Go there.” He is right, I think, that electors in Republican-majority states may be asked to promise to “go there” as a condition of their selection. They will not be asked, in that context, if they believe in democracy in the sense that every person gets one vote. They will not be asked whether their oath to support the Constitution requires them to be fair to all. They will be asked if they have the grit to to what needs to be done.

“No, I don’t” is not an acceptable answer. It removes you from the political organization making the demand, for one thing. But it also, in this phrasing, casts you as a coward. There will be no coming back from such a failure.

I have great admiration for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger who said, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, I can’t do that.” Trump said, “Find me the votes.” Raffensperger said, “I would break my oath to the Constitution and to the people of Georgia if I did that.”

Notice the alternation of frames of reference. It is the frame of reference we need to look for as the legislators and the electors are chosen for the 2022 and 2024 elections. Friedman is right, I think, that we are looking into the abyss. Will we continue to be a democratic government or will we not. Do we have the grit?

[1] For American watchers, there is no way not to think of Joe Friday. I don’t know whether Joe Friday of Dragnet is popular in Britain or if they just like to watch Americans struggle to keep from making the connection.

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Desolate Old Men  

Today, I would like to share a bittersweet reflection with you. Then I would like to poke at it a little. This anonymous reflection (below) about old friends was sent to me by an old friend of mine. He and I were in the Class of 1955 at Randolph High School (long since Northmont High School) just north of Dayton, Ohio. He was not only in my class; he was in my group. We were nerds together. So it meant something special to me that he wanted to send this reflection to me.

Here it is:

“When I was young, I noticed that every Friday at about 2pm, my grandfather would leave the house, drive somewhere, and come back after three hours. This happened regularly like clockwork for several years.
My curiosity was aroused so much so that I asked my grandmother, “Grandma, where does Grandpa go every Friday afternoon?”
To which my grandmother replied, ” a place called Country Bake Shop. He spends time with his friends drinking coffee and having pastries.”
This type of routine is very common among the elderly. A group of old friends would meet in some cafe, have coffee, and reminisce about the good old days. They would make sure they didn’t miss any session. After all, it is only to these guys they are able to say, “Do you remember?” because these guys were there when they lived those moments.
And then the number starts to dwindle. From a group of eight, the number goes down to five, then to three. Until finally, one finds himself alone. His friends leave him and he must now travel on alone. Even to the friendliest people he meets on the way, he will never be able to say, “Do you remember?” They were not there.
To the elderly, this is one of the most crippling experiences. Desolation. The feeling of being left behind by old friends who have been with you and shared with you all those crazy and happy moments. He is devastated by the awareness that the few years he has left will no longer allow him to expand that circle of friends once again.
Desolation. One good reason for the young to prepare themselves psychologically for old age. One good reason for them to treat the elderly with respect and compassion”.

They seem happy at the moment, though

I applaud the author’s choice of desolation as the word to describe this. As applied to a person, it means personal sorrow, but it points, too, to aloneness as the reason for the sorrow. The de- is desolation has the effect of intensifying the verb, so “really, really, alone” is the sense it has and that is the reason for the sorrow.

The aloneness the anonymous author talks about is the loss of people who share a recollection of the same events you remember. I said I would want to poke around at this idea a little. Let the poking begin.

We say we remember an event and we do. Kind of. There is a phenomenon I have come to call “narrative fatigue.” I mean the kind of drift a story we all hold in common undergoes when my buddies and I remember it and tell it again and again. As we all know, the story changes over time. It comes to reflect our current needs. So the “good old days” are the current form of the stories we tell and we tell them without the slightest notion that it has changed over the years of our telling it together.

I have thought, sometimes, that it might be even more enjoyable for us to share the changes in the story as we have negotiated them over them years, but I know that is not practical.

Another thought that occurs to me is the exclusive focus on reminiscence. There are other things they could have done, certainly and they may have done some of them that Grandma doesn’t know about. They may have “settled major world problems” in the manner of old men everywhere. They may have refined the usually tacit patterns of approval and disapproval that allow communities to function as social, rather than principally legal, bodies.

We don’t know, of course. If Grandma doesn’t know, we don’t know and there may be an understanding among the men that what happens at the Country Bake Shop stays at the Country Bake Shop. Still, it is a simple fact that every function I have imagined for these old men, with the simple exception of reminiscence, could be open to younger members. Imagining a mixed age group isn’t the easiest thing in the world, especially now that generational styles have become so widely accepted, but in a mixed age group, two really encouraging things could happen.

For one thing, apprenticeship could happen. Whatever of value these old men are doing could be passed on to the next generation of leadership. Imagine for a moment that this group of old men organizes and administers a charity for the special benefit of overachievers and underachievers. A young person who has watched that work is in a perfect place to pick it up when George has the first of what may turn out to be several strokes. The group can say nice things about George and they probably will, but what honors George more [1] than continuing his work?

The other really good thing that could happen to the old Country Bake Shop group with the addition of new members is that is might retard the process by which the group would otherwise devolve into a group of hapless old farts. The infusion of new values and especially new standards for language and behavior could revivify the group. Of course, it could destroy it, too, if it were badly done, but there is nothing like the gentle and persistent advocacy of new ways of talking and thinking to make a group resilient and comfortable with itself over the long haul. Provided—big deal—that “remembering how things were” is not the principal function of the group.

And if that happens, well…there is probably a New Country Bake Shop somewhere, where we can all start again.

[1] It occurred to me for the first time as I wrote that that the expression we ordinarily use—“honor his memory”—could just as well be used to refer to how acutely ol’ George remembered things. He could be the one who remembered who the supporting actors and the director were of a movie they had all liked a decade ago. “He was amazing,” one of the old guys could say, “especially the way he remembered our birthdays.” If that isn’t “honoring his memory,” I don’t know what is.

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Act Your Age

This phrase is an appeal to widespread knowledge and consensual values about how a person of a certain age should act. In a time where both widespread knowledge and consensual values are in decline, you would think that sentiments like this would seem oddly dated. Do parents still say things like this?

There are reasons to undermine the whole structure of the question. The emphasis we have now placed on the unique individual clearly have no use for “age based norms of behavior.” There has to be a way “one should act” at a certain age for the whole “act your age” thing to make any sense. That way is under serious threat.

Another reason is the rise of therapeutic language and the perspectives on human behavior that surround it. In an episode of Doc Martin that Bette and I watched recently, a dreadfully willful and undisciplined kid goes around the village scratching the paint of cars parked on the street. The father explains that the boy is just exploring his ambivalent feelings about authority. [1]

On the other hand, excuses like “boys will be boys” apply the “act your age” dictum in the other direction. The shield here is, “They ARE acting their age.” So…this kind of behavior is so common among boys that age that it should be expected and therefore not “abnormal.” If it is common, it is normal. If it is normal, it is acceptable. That goes downhill fast.

So we can, as these paragraphs indicate, undercut the whole rationale of “act your age,” but that’s not why I introduced the topic. I introduced the topic because I am an old man and I live in a senior center and the implications that flow from “act your age” are a different kind of thing entirely here. How does an old man or an old woman go about acting their age?

I’d venture to say that most of the men who live at HPP [2] have had sports team experience. There is a kind of banter that is normal in locker rooms. People who use that language are accepted as part of the team and those who don’t have an extra hurdle to get over. Trust me on that. If a group of men at HPP found themselves using that old sports-based language, it would be disapproved of—and not just by the women.

But we are looking here at the basis for that disapproval. Would these men be admonished to “act their age?” I think so. They could be reproved for being racist or sexist or ageist or whatever young men delight in, but that would be a morally heavy charge and we do all have to find a way to live together here. That is why I an age-based criticism might be chosen. “Sure high school athletes talk that way among themselves, but you aren’t high school athletes anymore.”

I think gendered patterns of interaction might meet the same fate. There are, roughly speaking, three groups at HPP as they bear on this question. There are men and women who still notice and appreciate gendeer differences. There are men who prefer the company and conversational style of men and women who, similarly, prefer to be with women. And there are those for whom noticing the difference at all has become burdensome.

If the norm is that old people just don’t notice (much less appreciate) gender differences, then an old man or an old woman who does notice and who does appreciate them, could be said not to be acting their age. “Age appropriate behavior” would then be defined as not noticing or not caring. It is “what old women and men are like.” Furthermore—once it has been formulated as a norm—it is what old women and men should be like.

That would mean that behavior that would have been unlikely even to be noticed at an earlier age—say the last third of a career—will be discrepant and worthy of comment. This could be taken as an affront by any man or woman who deny that a mutually enjoyable recognition of gender differences that have been treasured by both parties over a long life should be discarded on the grounds of age alone.

Once you move out of the developmental context—the “you shouldn’t be sucking your thumb any more now that you are X years old”—context. The whole standard gets a little fuzzier. Age-related norms are not as clear and the agreement about them begins to fray at the margins. There are so many other ways of criticizing behavior, that it seems a shame to use one so vulnerable to abuse.

Maybe “act your age” is not the kind of thing that should be said to old men and women.

[1] And, to raise another serious but unrelated problem, the father tells Doc Martin that Martin’s car insurance will pay for the damage so he has no reason to be offended by the child’s behavior.
[2] Just a convenience. Holladay Park Plaza in a senior center in Northeast Portland. There are roughly twice as many women as men and roughly ten times more Democrats than Republicans, especially recently.

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