The Philosopher's Café
After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn't it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.
In the prologue, I promised to include personal conversation from your friends, neighbors, and relatives. So I give you the Philosopher's Café. Who among us hasn't dreamed of operating a family business? For most, the money isn't there, the risk is too high, the trend has passed us by, or we lack the expertise. Part of Rick's education is in philosophy and psychology. Why not have a coffee shop where discussion of all kinds is encouraged, especially political discussion and self-examination leading to personal happiness? Philosopher's Cafés exist in metropolitan areas. They can be less formal or led by a doctor of philosophy or mediated by community members who choose topics for group discussion.
The following are two quotes from Plato Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems, by Lou Marinoff, Ph.D.: First, Marcus Aurelius, "The time of human life is but a point, and the substance is a flux, and its perceptions dull, and the composition of the body corruptible, and the soul a whirl, and fortune inscrutable, and fame a senseless thing—What then is there which can guide a man? One thing and only one, philosophy." And from Buddha, "Carpenters fashion wood; fletchers fashion arrows; the wise fashion themselves."
There are plenty of area coffee shops and even a Madison Socrates Café devoted to formal discussion but nothing exactly as Ricky would like. He thought of that business option, but with retirement funds decimated, he was skeptical of opening such a place in a small town during the Great Recession of 2008—perhaps another time in a different form.
His shop wouldn't be just a coffee house. There would be entertainment, with a mid-sized wet bar offering a small menu of mixed drinks. It would include a reading room or two with world newspapers. He'd attempt to cater to different crowds on different days, perhaps women's groups, political parties, young adults, and entrepreneurs. He'd mix in an appeal to the sports audience. He'd promote a place where all community members could come to talk and exchange ideas.
By operating such a coffee house, he could turn his diversity of interests into an asset by encouraging and moderating discussions. He could acquire a formal degree in applied philosophy for client and organizational counseling or group facilitation. A tragic flaw in his character, the "jack of all trades syndrome," could be turned into an asset. Those are also skills of life coaches, something else he had considered. And teaching remained another encore career possibility.
He loved to teach, but now in his early fifties and in the middle of school district budget cuts, he didn't feel comfortable making a huge commitment. He decided to get his feet wet by substitute teaching. Until the time came to make the final commitment, he'd have a luxury of options. Better to find his passion with a patient search than to throw good money after bad.
In the meantime, he could write. Others called it "retirement," but he always fought back against that term. It was an opportunity for new experiences. As a decade's long community activist, he'd written many editorials and had been encouraged by a few to write a book. He was learning it could be quite time intensive. But the process was also becoming more comfortable with each day's scribbling.
Why not include conversations he was already having about life during the Great Recession. His Philosopher's Café isn't limited to one building or one town. Conversations represent a cross-section of American thoughts. If you need a picture, then imagine this location.
It's on the bottom floor of the tallest building in town. The upper level, the third floor, once contained one of the city's two dance halls. It was also the 1920s meeting location for a popular Progressive Era club, the Knights of Pythias (http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_of_Pythias).
The second floor is apartment units. The first floor is split between unoccupied space and the coffee shop. It's a simple place with a twenty-by-thirty-foot seating area—some carpet and some tile. The open counter allows a view to the kitchen's pastry chef. Large glass windows afford a Main Street view at one of the three controlled intersections. Across the street is a local tavern. Next door is a 1960s-style drive-up burger stand. Kitty-corner sits a branch of a too-big-to-fail corporate bank. The wood burner adds a bit of warmth to an otherwise Spartan interior of laminated fiberboard table tops and comfortable wooden chairs. The cozy open seating provides for a cafeteria-style charm and multiple, simultaneous conversations. Apache worked at such a place while in high school.
A family picture shows her standing with Ricky, Lucy, and younger daughter, Amelia, in front of the counter. That picture, already four years old, was haunting. He'd like to grab the two daughters from the photo and keep them comfortably safe by his side, protected from the passage of time.
But changes are what life is about. It's up to us to make them positive. It wouldn't be fair to lock anyone into a still shot, forever preventing their life's journey. The best choice is to "enjoy the ride." Now four years later, the daughters were diligently working to enter graduate school for urban design and sustainable community. That is one example of the Philosopher's Café. Its small size promotes a cozy familiarity for the regular "characters." They include retired couples, writers, teachers,
Purpose Beyond 2012 : The Wisconsin Idea, Occupy Wall Street And Democracy's Future a yoga instructor, city officials, small-town gossips, an eccentric landscaper, an aspiring but aging rock star, a pilot, industrial engineers, a philosopher, preachers of all stripes, an in-your-face retired phone company employee, tea baggers, peace activists, and more. Our "townies" are the same strange but familiar characters represented in the final scene of television's Northern Exposure. The small-town people from the Brick Tavern, KBHR radio, Ruth-Anne Miller's General Store, Dr. Fleischman's office, and Roslyn's Café—see them here on YouTube, with Iris Dement singing "Our Town": http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=YRlaZ5zBDjA.
While some conversations take place at his auto mechanic's shop, in school, at the tennis courts, a local bar, or on the road, their elements echo back to the Philosopher's Café. He intends to expand upon those conversations in his book The Philosopher's Café: A Journey for Purpose and Community. The book is a celebration of his odd collection of friends and acquaintances. The personalities entertain.
Jack Kerouac wrote: "They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"
Kerouac's autobiography On the Road was published in 1957, another cross generational link to Ricky's birth year (http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/ Jack_Kerouac).
Learn People as They Are
It's very important that you learn people as they are. Anybody can go round and write a book about a person, but that book doesn't always tell you that person really. At that particular moment when you are talkin' to that person, maybe that's how that person were. Tomorrow they can be different people. It's very important to see people as people and not try to see them through a book. Experience and age give you this. There's an awful lot of people that has outstanding educations, but when it comes down to common sense, especially about people, they don't really know—.
That's a quote from Studs Terkel's Hard Times. Emma was a cook in Texas during the Great Depression. She was talking with Studs more than thirty-five years later about dealing with the various hobos and beggars during the Great Depression.
As Ricky describes his characters, he takes Emma's words to heart. Each of us is different each day of our lives. Certainly no other human can be an ultimate judge, too many considerations and too imperfect a judge. "There but for the grace of God go I," says the old proverb.
Rumors were that Ricky's father had begun writing a book. It disappeared with his untimely death, its location forever unknown. Perhaps Ricky's story is a partial tribute to his father's unfinished business. What to write about became the problem. Then he heard author John St. Augustine discussing his book Every Moment Matters: Savoring the Stuff of Life.
St. Augustine pointed out that we are all a lot more alike than we realize. Find that common ground. Do something gracious and it will be passed forward. Ricky hadn't quite nailed down what he could pass forward and why anyone would care. Then St. Augustine quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson. The connection was shocking. Emerson, according to Ricky's uncle Bill, was Dad's favorite author. The Emerson quote was "How vain it is to sit down and write when you haven't stood up to live." Ricky realized he had stood up throughout his life. Many of us have. And it was evident that history would soon be calling us to stand together again. Maybe he did have something to say.
For years, Ricky's random idea notes lay scattered on scraps in various files: places to visit, future careers, inventions, books and movies to sample, and people to visit. Maybe Ricky's mutant montage, his motley crew of friends, could help tell his story. The Star Wars "Mos Eisley Cantina" scene may be over-the-top, but you get the idea of how it represents characters in our lives. Here it is on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BVlARaJM74.
Maynard G. Krebs
Rick enjoys and lives vicariously through a diversity of people. While on vacation, he's used to his family walking away as he talks with strangers. So perhaps it's fitting that he has among his in-laws one rather unusual Vietnam era veteran, unusual in the sense that he could be a poster boy for the caricature of that era's confused and shell-shocked soldier. He emerged from the 1960s turmoil, through action in the war, to his current state with St. Francis-like concern for all life on earth. The long hair and tattoos remain. Otherwise, the only telltale sign of continuing internal conflict might be a tendency for scattered conversations. Like his cousin, Lucy, Maynard grew up watching Dobie Gillis in a Republican household but today can't figure out if that means being a Lincoln Liberal, a Reagan Democrat, or a Palin Tea Partier. Parts of the Maynard G. Krebs character are a perfect match.
Lucy and Maynard each have a souvenir Gulf of Tonkin Yacht Club patch from their service in the Navy. She remained stateside while Maynard was on a boat off the coast of Vietnam.
By the time they met in the mid-1980s, Ricky and Maynard didn't appear to have much in common. He had a yard full of spare parts and "vintage" cars. Ricky enjoyed sports and discussions of every kind. Maynard was divorced with children. Ricky grew up on farms, expecting to be married once and to become a dedicated father. Maynard had piercings and was covered in tattoos. Ricky finds them interesting, but becoming a human canvas wasn't in his stars. Maynard lived in the basement of his mother's house in a larger city. Rick felt lost amidst the noise and wanted a quiet place more connected to the land on which he grew up. They got along but didn't talk much those first twenty years. They had differing perspectives on relationships.
To feel useful, we need a few good relationships. We need to feel that someone depends on us. Here's part of a Dobie Gillis episode on YouTube with Maynard temporarily shocked at the reality of his existence—"I'm like lost, doomed": http:// www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BrAg0ouxXk.
"Man up" for Mental Health
Will those of us who followed the 2010 elections closely ever forget the phrase "man up" or the more pathetic sixth-grade quip, "Put your man-pants on"? These were typical utterances of nauseatingly entertaining and poorly qualified Tea Party candidates. Sharon Angle and Christine O'Donnell were taking cues from Sarah Palin, known to some as the "Calculating Queen of Crazy." Ironically, while boardrooms and political battlefields are still hemorrhaging, unchecked male testosterone, this pathetic drivel usually came from women belittling other elected officials for not being "manly" enough.
This was the emerging political landscape Ricky Vogt landed into by early 2009. After twenty-five years on the same job, Ricky found himself unemployed. He knew there would be adjustments toward an encore career and in gaining a new sense of purpose. He was willing to put in that time and effort.
But he hadn't realized just how close the economy was to collapse. His daughters' busy high school activities and college entrance, his mother-in-law's deteriorating health, and his mounting nagging injuries from work had conspired to distract Vogt from the economic bubble about to burst. He had been a buy-and- hold investor, educated to do so by reputable educational investment organizations. In that regard, he was just like millions of other well-intended and trusting Americans who believed their savings were safely helping to drive the economy.
We didn't know the extent of the deregulated 1980s-originated greed. Even Warren Buffet types, with armies of financial experts missed the collapse. Business schools were churning out ever larger numbers of snot-nosed MBA candidates eager to ride the gravy train to fabulous wealth. They ignored U.S. financial history. Everything was fabulous. So many experts couldn't be wrong. Wall Street feasted upon the slickly advertised leveraged gambling sold as collateralized debt obligations and the insurance placed upon them as credit default swaps. By late 2008 and into early 2009, America and the world were hoping to avoid complete economic collapse. Savings accounts had been plundered by a few sociopaths with billion-dollar smiles.
By January of 2009, Vogt had seen his 401(k) retirement account become less than a 201(k). A once-in-an-eighty-year event was bad enough. He hadn't also planned on "the cousin from hell." On the very first day of his career change, Daryl moved in.
Ricky and Lucy had discussed it many times over the past year. They knew Daryl was in trouble. A lost construction job after failed marriages had been the final straw. And although they knew he had trouble with alcohol, they didn't realize he had been a functional alcoholic, perhaps since high school. That was thirty- seven