Saturday, January 30, 2010

Surviving childhood

One of the things we aging boomers love to talk about is how much safer the world used to be when we were kids.

It was in some respects. Mostly, though, I wonder how we survived.

As kids in the 1950s and 60s we were allowed to roam our entire neighborhoods from sunup to sundown free and unfettered from fear of death or abduction. Nobody was ever snatched off the street. That possibility never even crossed our minds.

We didn’t have drive-by shootings. Hell, we didn’t have drive-thru hamburger joints. Back then if you wanted to buy a burger or to shoot somebody you had to park the car and get out first.

It was a simpler, more forgiving time. But it was also a daily horror show we never even noticed.

Cars didn’t have seat belts until the mid-sixties and by then they seemed silly to those of us who grew up literally bouncing between the back and front seats everywhere our parents drove us. They didn’t mind in the least as long as we didn’t start fighting.

We had house fans with no protective cover to keep little fingers out of the whirling steel blades. If you had invented the electric fan doesn’t a protective cage over the front just seem like a natural piece of the big picture? How did they not think of that?

(I never heard of a single injury.)

I could go on and on…

The heat in our homes came up from the floor through metal grates that got hot enough to sear a waffle pattern into tender toddler feet and butts.

Everybody smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes everywhere. I mean everywhere: on buses and trains; in grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches and in every room of every home in America. That’s where this attachment to “fresh air” started, you know. Think about it. No matter where you live these days, big city or wide-open spaces, the air is no fresher outside than it is inside. But you still say, “I need some fresh air,” and then you step out of a filtered, air conditioned room into downtown San Bernardino.

Dogs ran free when we were kids.

You let the dog out of the house and he was gone, who knows where, until he came back to the porch and demanded re-entry. That might be the next day or the day after that. If he bit somebody while he was out you never knew about it. If he tangled with another dog you’d see him trot back into the house at dinner time, tongue and tail wagging happily, with one bloody ear and a mangled eyeball. You didn’t take him to the vet unless he’d been hit by a car and even then if he could hobble out of the street on two of his four legs Skippy was good to go.

We had killer toys. Literally.

When I was a kid we would choose up sides and have wars using toy guns that were nearly as deadly as real ones. We had air-powered BB-rifles and pistols that allowed us to fire tiny steel balls with enough velocity to embed them under the skin of another kid, a dog or a cat. It stung but we loved it. This is where we first heard the sentence, “You could put an eye out with that!” Nobody ever stopped us from trying but the warning was issued occasionally and apparently it was heeded. Nobody ever lost an eye to a BB-gun assault.

If there weren’t enough BB-guns to go around, we’d just throw rocks.

Seriously, rock fights. And worse…

We had toy bows and arrows. Oh sure, the arrows had rubber cups on the end. You just took those off and whittled the wooden shaft into a pencil-sharp point.

And mind you, this was all going on shortly after World War II ended.

We had firecrackers. We made bottle rockets out of wooden match heads cautiously jammed tightly together into glass aspirin bottles. If you weren’t as careful as a brain surgeon they became instantaneous bombs, igniting in hand and shooting shards of red-hot glass dozens of feet in all directions.

I’m not making this up!

One idiot kid I remember used to lie down on the ground and have the rest of us drop a huge rock — say, the size and weight of a bowling ball — right over his face.

We weren’t very tall, maybe four feet. He’d always roll out of the way before the rock hit the ground. He never failed.

We climbed trees, great cottonwoods, scampering twenty or thirty feet above the ground. Once I fell, skinning my bare back as I slid down the trunk of that great tree, landing hard on its exposed roots. My grandma sprayed Bactine on my injuries and gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on Wonder white bread. I watched Popeye on TV and felt a lot better.

We jumped off the roof of my grandparents’ house with completely ineffective home-made parachutes.

One of my goofy uncles used to bounce on the roof on a pogo stick.

And we wondered why Grandpa drank.

Nobody died. We seldom cried. And now we worry about our own kids and theirs.

They missed so much.

© Copyright 2010, Dave Williams. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

At home with the Cleavers

Carolann and I were watching TV the other evening when our seven-year-old grandson, Isaiah, asked if he could join us.

It was close to his bedtime and I figured he’d be bored to death by the movie we were watching anyway so his Nana told him yes but said he would have to be quiet so we could hear the movie.

Isaiah’s a great kid, he really is. He’s a little squirmy. He did start making some seven-year-old noises and we had to ask him to pipe down a couple of times. But the movie got his attention when the teenage girl asked the teenage boy if he would like to see her breasts.

“Breasts!” Isaiah said with some amazement. “That’s a woman’s body part, huh?”

Yes, we told him. I don’t know about Carolann but I started to get a little nervous, having no idea where this movie was going. But Isaiah solved the problem for us immediately:

“Should I not watch this?” he asked.

“Yes,” Nana told him. “Don’t watch.”

I told you, he’s a great kid. A good boy.

He turned his face away from the screen and listened to some dialogue that couldn’t have given him a clue as to what was going on. He was perfectly patient for a moment. And then, still not looking at the TV, he asked quite loudly and in a voice I can only describe as enthusiastic curiosity:

“Are they HUGE?”

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rain stories, part one

I love rain.

I don’t love driving or walking in it, of course, but sitting inside in a cozy, warm house while God cleans and replenishes our world is high on my list of the best things in life. If there’s a fireplace in the room it goes up another notch or two.

Yesterday though, I had to drive to work in a pounding rain — highly unusual in Southern California and all the more dangerous for that reason. That nobody knows how to drive in the rain here is not only an accepted fact, it is the subject of much chuckling and chortling among Southern Californians. Not that it’s funny in the least. Busy freeways with people smacking into each other as if we were all driving carnival bumper cars is very stressful.

I was running a little late and didn’t take time to eat before I left the house. I figured a drive-thru burger would do just fine.

Now, the funny thing about the Carls Jr. in our neighborhood is that it was constructed backward. By that I mean the drive-thru window is on the wrong side of the building. Consequently, when you reach the window it is also on the wrong side of your car, the passenger’s side. I had to get out of the car to pick up my order.

The rain was hard and relentless. Not wanting the inside of the car to get wet, I left the keys in the ignition, engine running and closed the door behind me, making sure first that it wasn’t locked. Really, I did that.

The moment I stepped away from the vehicle THE DAMNED SECURITY SYSTEM IN THAT MODERN MARVEL LOCKED ME OUT!!

So, here I am — locked out of my car, waving the drive-thru customers behind me around my steaming, wiper-active, warm, dry, inaccessible 2005 Toyota Sienna.

I suspect some of those people are still telling the story of the idiot they saw yesterday standing in a downpour, without a jacket or umbrella, calmly eating a Western Bacon Cheeseburger.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The loving "ism"

Racism; deplorable. Sexism; unacceptable.

Ageism; adorable.

I recently annoyed some friends in an email chat group by expressing my irritation at the proliferation of jokes about old people. They think I’m overreacting. It’s no big deal, people have always made fun of old folks, right?

People still tell race jokes, too, but at least we know that’s disrespectful and wrong.

Look at what I just found at a website called “Old People Are Funny.”

If an old man falling on an escalator is funny to you, go ahead and close this window and go to that site, instead. It’s a damned giggle fest.

Black birthday balloons! Hoo-hah, how funny is that?

Look, I know it’s mostly in good, innocent fun and we should always, at all ages, be able to laugh at ourselves. It’s not that. No, what gripes me is the fact that many people, maybe all of us eventually, buy into the notion that getting old means we’ll be doddering, slobbering, laughable old fools. So, we simply assume the role, sit down in the rocking chair and watch the world pass by without so much as waving to it.

The jokes take us by the hand and lead us there

And, it’s not even the jokes that bother me as much as the allusions to how “cute” old people are.

I just received an email that had a link to a video of an elderly man and his wife playing the piano together. They weren’t doing anything amazing. They weren’t playing Flight of the Bumblee in rounds and different, harmonic keys. They weren’t playing the notes with their noses, toes, elbows and tongues. They were just playing a little tune together. Isn’t that cute!?

Why? What’s cute about it? If these people were in their thirties or forties instead of their eighties it wouldn’t be adorable. Nobody would have turned a camera on them in the first place.

I simply think we should treat old people the same way they were treated when they were young adults and middle-aged. Give them the same respect we afford people we take more seriously. Judge them by the content of their character and the wisdom of their years rather than the number of them.

And, by God, when an old person is being a pain in the ass, unload on ‘em! Don’t give them a pass because of age.

It’s hard to text a sigh.

I know I’m being silly. Well, I don’t think it’s silly but I know a lot of people do. And certainly, part of my concern is personal and yes, I am offended at the idea I will soon be marginalized by stereotypes. Please don’t ever refer to me as a “senior citizen” or some other gentle euphemism. I will simply be old and wear my age as a badge of achievment, thank you.

I will laugh, I’ll converse as intelligently as I’m able and I’ll keep writing as long as I can. But I won’t be cute, okay?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Old dog, new economy

I’ve been spoiled my whole life. Never been poor.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of, no more than being poor is. It is simply our circumstance for a million reasons, including dumb luck - good, tragic or in-between. I’ve never been truly wealthy but until very recently I never had to pinch pennies, either.

And, brother, I did not!

About a year ago I lost my job and spent three months collecting unemployment checks. It put a temporary dent in our lifestyle and knocked a huge hole in my self-esteem which we won’t deal with in this report.

(You’re welcome.)

I did eventually get a new job but at just 25% the salary I had been used to for the past twenty years or so. 25%! Now we’re talking lifestyle dents Geico would just write off as a total loss.

And then — this is the really funny part, the Oliver Hardy-like, slap-yourself-in-the-face consternation moment — I recently lost that new job, got yet another, newer one, and am earning yet less!

Isn’t that a hoot!?

I just bought a big bag of dry kidney beans.

Dry kidney beans will be the metaphor for this epiphany and maybe my entire life.

When my best high school buddy, Ray Hunter, and I moved into our first apartment in 1969 we went to the grocery store and bought a lot of stuff we didn’t know how to prepare, including a big bag of dry kidney beans. Ray’s mom always had some so we considered it a mysterious staple, a necessity. We also bought two steaks to celebrate our new independence and our first meal in our shared home.

We bought chuck steaks and tried to fry them.

Since that glorious, giddy evening at Albertson’s forty years ago I have never again purchased dry beans or chuck steak. I figured they were a terrific waste of money.

And now, at 58, I’ve learned something drop-jaw amazing:

Did you know kidney beans in the can cost more than twice as much as if you’re willing to buy them in a bag and simply soak them in water overnight?

I know a lot of things about a lot of things but that’s something I didn’t learn until today. More to the point, though, is that even if I had known that, until now it wouldn’t have mattered a — well… a hill of beans to me.

I recently bought the Albertson’s generic-brand of Grape Nuts® and it was three dollars less than the same size Post® brand box! THREE DOLLARS SAVINGS ON A SINGLE BOX OF CEREAL!

For the first time in my adult life there is no such thing as “junk mail.”

I anticipate the daily arrival of retail coupons and supermarket ads as if they were Christmas cards or love letters!

I’ve learned to make beef jerky for our dogs in the kitchen rather than spend twenty bucks for it at the pet store!

The crockpot is my best friend!

Somebody stop me before I buy a Flowbee® and start cutting my own hair!

Saving money is wildly fun!

I’m clipping coupons, I’m rifling through cookbooks I’ve never opened, exorcizing all references to specific brands.

Bless me and yet save me, I am a born-again-for-the-first-time penny pincher!

And I promise –

…I swear to you!…

– when I start turning my underwear inside out I will seek help.

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