Allegan County News & Union Enterprise Commercial Record Courier-Leader & Flashes

Life as Performance Art

   No doubt you have seen a televised insurance company commercial where an older fellow is trying to help a group of young people avoid turning into their parents.  It is such a clever ad I cannot remember the name of the company, so good luck with asking me that one.  Far more importantly, why is becoming like our parents, or adopting some of their best attributes, such a bad thing?  Or why should we run in terror from their quirkiness, when just doing what they did or said gives you instant status as an eccentric?  For most of us, our parents had a quite few good things going for them.
     A couple of years a small herd of British psychologists wrote a paper that explained that, on average, all of us carry forward some twenty to thirty traits from our parents into our lives.  In turn, we’ll pass them on to the children, grands, and greats. They are going to turn into you and me.  I do not think that is so bad, but they might think it is scary.
    I catch myself sounding sometimes a bit comfortably like my father.  Growing up, I cannot remember ever going out the door,  whether to pull weeds in the vegetable garden, scrape the frost off the windshield of his car,  or anything else  without hearing his perpetual mantra:  “Be careful.”  It was never ‘have fun or enjoy yourself’  or even ‘go make a lot of money,’  but always,   ‘be careful.’ 
     Being careful, along with not taking anything more than the absolute minimum of risks, was a great virtue when we were growing up, and probably for good reason. The world was a dangerous place, what with that crazy shoe-pounding Russian, Comrade Khrushchev,  at the UN who wanted to bury us and had the bomb to do it,  One time my father walked me to school just to point out the fall-out shelters along the route,  with the terse to remember the locations, and then to call home to let them know I was all right. He quizzed me a week later to be sure I remembered. I chose not to quiz him how he thought Ma Bell would working when she ought to be in an air raid shelter along with the rest of us.
     Chinese Communists, American Communists and Fifth Columnists (according to the John Birch Society), tornados,  blizzards, and juvenile delinquents, and drunk drivers were all out there, ready to spring.  To make the world all the more dangerous, if only according to The Olds,  we can add rock and roll music and the  grand champion of evil – Elvis, followed closely behind by “those insects boys with the long hair”  who invaded from England.
    One time when I went for a haircut, Father called Slim the barber and told him to make sure my hair was cut short. Slim told me and I didn’t try to convince him to ease up on the sheers.  Slim had cut Big Al and Al “Creepy Al”  Karpis’s hair in the past, and no one disagreed with Slim.
    Thus,  that final parental mantra was always ‘be careful’ and avoid all dangers.
   For years I wanted to ask, “Do you really think that telling me to be careful is going to make me any more careful than I already am?” I didn’t ask because it was would to talk back to an adult. Therefore, talking back was not a safe thing to do. Arguing with Slim and his leather strop and straight edge blade would have been safer.  I listened, and sure enough, now I catch myself doing much the same thing.  Father might have looked for the fire exit; at my age I look for the restroom sign.
    There has to be more to life than always being careful. That’s why I like Garrison Keillor’s closing line, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”  Or the closing from the Red Green Show where Red would say, “Keep your stick on the ice. I’m pulling for you; we’re all in this together.”  Those are positive and encouraging lines, but I never remember it in time to use it, so I just follow Father’s lead and tell people to be careful.
    For years and years, I heard Father’s dire warnings of investing in the stock market. I understood once I realized The Olds lived through the Great Depression.  The only safe thing to do with money was never spend it and put it into a reliable passbook savings account.  The next decade they saved their nickels, dimes, and quarters to by a US Savings Bond to help the war effort. I embraced and internalized that message, too. Just the other day I walked into the bank with Father’s old, big green canvas deposit bank under my arm. The teller looked at it, looked at me,  repeated the process, and finally asked, “So, where did you find that?”  I explained it belonged to my father who passed away over a quarter of a century ago, and since it was still in good shape, I was using it.   Just to tease her I said, “Say, I’m sorry, but I left my savings passbook at home. Can you still take my five-dollar deposit?”
     I’m not ashamed to admit if I see a penny on the ground, I’ll pick it up.  I don ‘t go in for this business about it being lucky, although I believe in a modified form of luck:  The harder I work the luckier I am. Picking up a penny is a little bonus to be added to a collection of change I’ll put into the bank bag and add to my non-passbook savings account.  Next time it will be five dollars and one cent. 
     Turning into my parents?  You mean doing things like going to a restaurant shortly after they open for the evening because we want to enjoy our dinner before it gets too noisy?  Or wincing when a perky member of the wait staff practically pats me on the head for being such a good boy because I made such an “excellent choice” off the menu.  Perky did it again after I said I would have water with my meal, then added, “on the rocks, please.”
     When Perky returned within seconds after putting the plate in front of me to ask, “how are the first bites?” I was still cleaning the cutlery (discreetly under the table, mind you, just the way dear old dad did it) with my napkin, and hadn’t had time to take a bite. Now, I’m sure the dishwasher had done a good job, but The Olds never took any chances and lived long lives. I do it just because I want to be careful.
    I still have Uncle Corwin’s storm coat – a heavy wool number with wide lapels.  There’s no reason to get rid of it because it will never wear out.  He died in 1950, and a Truman campaign pin was still on the lapel years earlier. Maybe he was saving it for 1952.  So far all threads and buttons are present and accounted on the coat, so I sometimes wear it. The Old’s admonition of ‘waste not, want not’ comes echoing through the brain whenever I wear it.
    Turning into my parents?  Why would anyone object?  I like phrases such as ‘long distance call’ when ‘dialing’ someone on the telephone?  Or, referring to some long-winded repetitive friend by describing them as ‘a needle stuck in a broken record.’  which makes no sense to someone born after the age of eight tracks and cassettes.  It confuses the next generations and messes with their head.
      I would be very happy to return to my parent’s era, especially when Madame asks me to pick up some laundry detergent with a specific name, and I am confronted by a full aisle of that brand of  detergent divided up into twenty sub-sections.  I asked the laundry detergent department’s deputy assistant manager about the reason they carried so many different varieties. “Choices,” was his only response. That fellow might go far. Why, if he stays with it, in another decade or so he might get himself promoted to full manager of the detergent aisle because of his customer service.  Frankly, I don’t think all those choices are a necessity.  It takes up too much time trying to debate whether she wanted me to get the plastic jug with the essence of avocados, Alpine Valley Scent or Tropical Breezes.  I know she likes avocados, but I am not certain I want my socks smelling like a bowl of guacamole. As for the Alpine Valley Scent, we all know that those mountains have lots of dangerous wild animals, and not a single latrine among them. I’m not so certain of that aroma. All those choices bring a whole new meaning to the old adage of “better living through chemistry.” There is elegance in simplicity, even when it comes to laundry soap. I went for the jug that said ‘traditional’ on the front and hoped for the best.
    On the subject of laundry, the Olds were well ahead of their time.  They had an environmentally friendly clothes drier that used both wind and solar power. It was so effective there was no need for Alpine Valley Scent detergent. A clothesline and the sun did the job for them. So did the cattle feedlot that was always upwind on a Monday.
     What I find fascinating is that a few generations ago clothes lines were in constant use. Then came the electric or gas dryer, and clotheslines were put into retirement. Sure enough, they’re back again because so many people want to do their part for the environment, and this is one method. It’s also a stab against galloping inflation.  You know – be careful how you spend your money; waste not, want not. Just be careful.

Leave a Reply