Last week a smart woman told me to do something stupid. I said no, and she argued that even if the stupid thing didn’t help me, it wouldn’t hurt me either. I gave her reasons why I thought this thing she suggested was dumb. She huffed and said she’d been doing her job for 23 years, and she’d seen this thing work over and over. She didn’t come right out and scream at me to shut up and give in, but that may have been a matter of good breeding.
When she pulled out her 23 years experience, like Colt revolver at a gunfight, that’s when she lost me. I’d been teetering towards doing her dumb thing, but her vast experience meant nothing to me. Think about it. If I suggested that you start steering your car with your feet, would you fling off your sneakers and jump in the driver’s seat just because I’d seen it work for 23 years? If you would, please meet me at your bank with the keys to your house and a pair of fur-lined handcuffs.
Bobby Heinlein wrote, “There’s no virtue in being old, it just takes a long time.” Of course, he was an older fellow when he wrote it, but the sentiment still applies. The young may be wise and the old foolish, just as easily as the other way around. If I’ve done something for a generation, my head’s now so full of the things I know that there’s no room for the things I don’t know.
Today I found myself heaping gentle contempt on that well-meaning woman with 23 years of experience. Then I asked myself what my wife might say to me. My wife is always on my side in the ways that count. This means she is frequently not on my side when I’m behaving foolishly. Then she explains the other side, which is good for me in the end. In this case I’ll paraphrase her imaginary advice to me as, “You behave exactly the same way, dumbass.”
And of course, she is correct. She’s correct even when she’s only present in an imaginary sense, and I must say that’s a nice trick. But now that the mirror has been shoved in my face, I have to look at myself fairly hard. And that leads me to wonder about the ways in which a generation ago I was wise and today am foolish.
Buy cheap beer. My younger, wiser self ignored irrelevancies such as brand and flavor when buying beer. He only concerned himself with cost. If he could get a case of Milwaukee’s Best for $4.00, he bought a half dozen of them. Today I may pay $10.00 for a six-pack of fine, imported beer, but my young self knew that after the first three or four cans all beer tastes the same.
Don’t try to predict the future. I worry about the future these days. I think about investing for retirement, about the job market, and about home prices in my neighborhood. I even budget. If my younger self could see me, he’d snicker at the old guy wasting his time. He’d know that I can’t control any of these things, and that they’ll happen whether I worry about them or not. When they happen, that’s the time to deal with them. The young me understood this in the way that only those who drive a 15 year old Malibu that may throw a rod any day can understand it.
Don’t worry too much about having a job. My young self loved having a job, since having money let him buy cheap beer and pay rent and go out with his friends. But he didn’t fret about losing a job or finding another one. In fact, he was a lot more likely to keep his job when he didn’t act paranoid about losing it, and the job was less annoying too. My young self would be appalled to see me obsess over having a job, and young me would probably write older me off as a heart attack waiting to happen.
Buy stuff used. I admit that now I like to buy new things. There’s something about being the first person whose butt has embedded itself into that couch. But my young self knew that was nothing but conceit. Why buy a bed when you can buy your roommate’s brother’s futon for ten bucks? It’s just as good and is cheaper by two orders of magnitude. Young me would tell older me that used stuff is almost always better than new stuff, if I can just get past my big, fat ego.
Hang out with people you know, not people you look at. My young self spent a lot of time with his friends. They went to crappy bars, and to movies, and to play Frisbee golf, and to Shakespeare in the Park, and to dance clubs where the girls had fun torturing them. I can’t think of a single time that a friend called to say, “Hey, let’s go to that happy hour where the toquitos made us puke last time,” and young me replied, “Sorry, I’m watching TV tonight. Baywatch is on.” Young me knew that even puking with my friends makes a better memory than David Hasselhoff with no shirt on.
Don’t read editorials or reviews. Today I feel oppressed by the sense that there’s so much to know. Is Congress going insane, is Europe going down the toilet, will The Hobbit be any good, which news network is the biggest gang of lying bastards? It’s just too much. My young self simply assumed right out of the gate that every person older than him was lying to him about everything. If everyone says that interest rates will keep going up, just assume that rates will go down and move on. Go see whatever movies you want, even if all the reviewers say that “Caddyshack” sucks. My young self understood that there’s not too much to know. There’s just too much to worry about.
Tell people what you think. My young self rarely hid his thoughts. If he thought you were an overripe cluster of dangling camel scat, you probably knew it almost right away. People didn’t wonder what my young self thought. He sometimes earned trouble for himself, and a few people didn’t like him much, but he didn’t walk around trying to remember what not to say to dangling camel scat guy. When he said what he thought and people liked it, he knew he’d found a good place to be. He filtered the undesirable people and places out of his world by being a nasty jerk. It was a win-win.
Looking back now I see that young me was often wise, while older me has become foolish. Maybe this will help me empathize with my fellow foolish old guys, but I’m not sure I can recapture any of that youthful wisdom. I guess I can try. Come by this weekend—we’ll sit on my futon, do dumb stuff, and drink cheap beer.