Old Men, Dying, And The Things They Take

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I was up early on a Saturday morning with my friend Thom Guthrie, and we were watching old men march.
The old men were dressed in military blue revolutionary garb, drums hanging from their waists.  They marched around the gazebo in the tiny town square, a patch of grass grudgingly stuffed in the middle of three intersecting roads.  We were too far away to hear what they were saying, but they were moving with great, exaggerated, heroic movements, the kind of motion that men in the 1950s envisioned George Washington striding across the landscape.
Nobody else was paying attention to them.  The only crowd, if you could call it that, was a small boy – evidently a grandson – standing in his own outfit, watching befuddled.  Whatever their ceremony was, it was inadvertently private.
“You know,” Guthrie said, turning to me after we’d watched them for a while, “I don’t want to do that, but I’m sad when it won’t be done.”
I nodded.  And we watched the old men some more.
My grandmother was a big woman on clubs, she was – a Loyal Member of the Amaranth, a Moose Club member, and forever helping people hold yard sales.  Every weekend, she’d go to some large, musty hall and dress up regalia and drink a hell of a lot.  The members were colorful old guys, veterans who all had nicknames like “Tiny” and booming laughs and hoards of in-jokes.
(Fun fact: My grandmother was the first and only member to consistently call me “Ferrett” after I pointed out that everyone at the club knew her as “Boots.”)
The organizations were basically a gossip factory, being full of snakepit politics where oh God did you hear how Mary wanted to change the drafting rule, and of course henpecked George went along, he always does – but that was a feature, not a bug, as it allowed my Gramma to be on the phone for hours at a time with her friends, talking merrily.  It filled her life with diversions.  And the clubs themselves did a lot of good things, although to me it often seemed inadvertent – charity drives that raised thousands of dollars, Easter Egg hunts, big Christmas food drives.  We were more charitable with Gramma in our life, merely because she dragged us into going to places we never would have thought to go otherwise, and was constantly passing down the pressure from her group to our family in order to donate cans, or pull-tabs, or what have you.
But it wasn’t a comfortable environment for kids.  They brought kids in on occasion – loved them, in fact – but the halls smelled like cigarette smoke, had couches filled with burnt ash and spilled scotch, and were dark as nightclubs without any of the attending glamour.  There simply wasn’t much for kids to do, though they had a stockpile of old games from the 1950s to drag out reluctantly.  It didn’t seem all that comfortable for my parents, either, as you had to dress up in tuxedoes and gowns – every stylist member of the Amaranth had their own gown, of course, but my parents looked uncomfortable and underdressed in their suits.
Yet it was a good business.  It ran.
Now it’s dying.
My mother was pressured into the Loyal Order by Gramma, and stayed for twenty years, but she found it to be a tangle of drama.  Which, of course, it was.  I’d rather stay at home and not have regular meetings with strangers, avoid engaging with teetotalling idiots who think the boozy Loyal Order should be more structured.
Yet throughout the United States, there are tons of organizations like this that are dying.  The Loyal Order.  Those historical reenactors out on the lawn.  Even the Boy Scouts seem to have problems attracting younger leaders, and I don’t write that off thanks to their anti-gay stance.  It’s just graying of a generation, and neither the Baby Boomers nor my generation had much interest in going out to be part of a club.  We’d rather just hang with our friends, a smaller and less organized group of people, self-selecting for comfort.
I don’t want these things to die.  They did (and do!) good work, tying communities together.  They provided a sense of obligation, of charity, of duty, that I lack in my life.  Sure, I blog, and I write to my Congressmen occasionally, and I suppose a lot of the donations and retweets I give to friends in trouble recreate that online.  But it’s not the same as getting out there and getting my hands dirty.
I also think there is a certain value of being pressed into a large group of people who you often have nothing in common with; an inconvenience, yes, but it reminds you that the world is not your friends, and mutates your outrage into a different set of beings.  On the Internet, you see these full-throated cries of MY GOD WHY DO I STILL HAVE TO TEACH STRANGERS ABOUT MY RARE AND NOT-WELL-KNOWN SYNDROME, since everyone they talk to has this marginalized issue, and it seems almost a befuddled moan of rage that the world does somehow not match their self-selected environment.  Whereas my Gramma and mother had a different, healthier anger – these people were inconveniences, obstacles, and morons, but they also had good qualities to be mined out.  So how the hell did you minimize their damage and maximize the rarity of their strengths?
But I don’t want to do that.  It sounded exhausting, as a kid, and sounds exhausting when my Mom relates the travails of her local condo group.  But it’s useful.  All of those Robert’s Rules of Orders and calls to action and subcommissions were hideously inefficient, like a job you never got paid for, but they got stuff done in that very human way where 80% of the effort is wasted.  Yet there were poor and sick people whose lives were immeasurably bettered.  There were cultures that honored things that should be honored, like the guys who died to free America from Britain’s rule.
Somebody should be honoring them, even if it’s not me.
I dunno how much you can fight selfishness.  As I said, my mother was pressured into it by my Gramma, and one sensed my Gramma was pressured into it by her friends, indicating that a certain constant force is necessary to squash people into these kinds of groups.  In the absence of that cultural combination of obligation and guilt, people just sort of drift away.  Which is happening now.  And it’s not being replaced by anything, so the world seems both a bit freer and a bit colder to me.
I have more free nights to play Diablo with my wife, to watch Master Chef with my friends, to work on my arcade cabinet.  I have less drama in my life, interacting with all the people in my neighborhood.  This is awesome.  Yet I also know near to nobody in my town, have no idea what the real challenges facing Rocky River are, and don’t really help the local downtrodden at all aside from throwing a few bucks at local charities.
There’s a part of me that wants my buddies to go, come on, you gotta join, everyone’s doing it, we’re all pitching in for this scrap metal drive.  To make me a functioning, productive member of this society I live in physically, here and now.  And another, larger part that’s happy to dork away my nights for my own pleasure, wistfully watching the old men slowly die and take their organizations with them.
So it goes.

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