Vintage Treasure

Two friends are celebrating  significant birthdays this month. So for them, I am reprinting this essay from September 18, 2019. Happy Birthday, Kim, and Belated Happy Birthday Dani!

My late mother-in-law, Mary, was a world-travelling, spirituality-seeking whirlwind. She was bright, intelligent, graceful, and had a marvelous sense of humor. I absolutely adored her. The destructive evil that is Alzheimer’s robbed Mary of all these qualities, but until that happened, the woman I lovingly nicknamed “La Comtesse” was everything I wanted to be as I aged.

One of my favorite memories of Mary stems from the days when she was still a healthy woman who travelled extensively. Arriving home from a cruise, she related a story from her vacation, and to this day I recall the look on her face as she concluded the tale. At the time, Mary was on the far downhill side of 60, rapidly ziplining toward her next decade. One of her shipmates on this seniors’ cruise was a silver-haired lady, tidy, quiet and retiring, who participated in few of the ship’s activities. This quintessential little old lady, Mary remarked, observed a birthday during the cruise, and La Comtesse asked her which birthday she was celebrating.

“Oh,” the little old lady replied, “this is the big one! The big Five-Oh!”

I had cause to recall the irony of this story not long ago, when an author whose books I generally enjoy put dreaded words into the mouth of a youthful character: the young woman referred to an aged character as an “old biddy”. Judging by this youthful writer’s perspective, my beloved La Comtesse would have qualified as an “old biddy”. Yet nothing could have been further from the truth! Then, with dismay, I recalled that “old biddy” was actually the very phrase my own Grandmother used to reference those in her age group who’d stopped really interacting with life; who spent their days bemoaning their aches and pains while disparaging everything modern and recalling the past in a pink-tinted haze of inaccurate nostalgia. (Grandma, too, was a whirlwind, one who drove everywhere in her huge yacht of a car, couponed madly, fed everyone home-cooked meals no matter what the time of day or night, drove to work at an office until she could no longer shovel her car out from the snow in harsh winters, and generally had a rip-roaring good time.)

I have walked a few weary miles since the days when I was a mere teenager, sitting through a boring classroom lecture about semantics: the value of a word beyond merely its definition; the weight and worth of meaning given to it by opinion and understanding. And so as I now deal with the reality of my own aging, recalling Mary’s humorous tale of her “old” shipboard companion and my life-loving Grandmother’s behavior, while encountering demeaning phrases in books and being treated with thinly-disguised impatience by the very young, I’ve had reason to truly mull those long-ago lessons in semantics. I’ve reached the conclusion that it’s often sadly true that those in the latter half of life are treated with disrespect and contempt in modern society. And I’ve decided that some, perhaps many, of those attitudes center less around one’s personal behavior and ability than around the semantics of the word “old”.

We treat merchandise with disdain when it is merely old. To be old is to be outmoded or outdated; unfashionable. We begin to appreciate it when it becomes vintage, but it is not until it is antique that we regard it with awe and reverence. When we speak of “elder” it is with respect; i.e., “the elder statesman”. Yet to be elderly conjures up a picture of frailty and infirmity.

Old is old-fashioned; out-of-date; old is an outlook that is behind the times. Old is a pensioner, a senior, a geriatric—yet mature is a superior condition. Songs can be “oldies but goodies”; cars can be classics. Yet attitudes can be scathingly considered traditional and even archaic. Aged is a sad condition, yet historic is valued, while ancient or antiquity are regarded with wonder. Old, though, is time-worn, hoary, antiquated.

With all of these words firmly in mind, each of them denoting a different semantic variation of that which is old, I’ve decided that I shall never, ever again refer to myself using the word old. I will not even disrespect myself by remarking that I am aged, or aging. The words I use to refer to myself need to be free from heavy and unintended meaning, weighting me down with subconscious consequences.

So from this point forward, I plan to be Vintage. Vintage is treasured, special, worthwhile, valued, appreciated. Vintage is desirable.

I’m not nor ever will be an old biddy. But I’m already Vintage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like the essay “Dying to be Seen”.  Scroll to the Archives, below, and you will locate it published September 4, 2018.

Crinkles

This all came to mind when I dropped my cell phone into the bathwater.

I am old enough that I can recall a time when drugs that are today either banned or at least strongly regulated were sold over the counter. As a child, I clearly remember my parents dispensing paregoric (a type of opium) mixed with kaolin clay to treat diarrhea—one of the more horrific tastes one can experience in a lifetime, I assure you. It was almost better to endure the diarrhea. The cough mixture we kids were given was a sugary syrup compounded with cherry bark extract, alcohol, and codeine. (That was absolutely delicious, by the way.) I know modern parents will shudder upon reading about these treatments. I shuddered myself as a young parent, treating my child’s illnesses while recalling what I’d been given. Nevertheless, the mixtures were once common; everyone used them.

But while I clearly recall the taste and texture of the medicines, I also have a faint memory of the bottles from which they were dispensed—bottles that did not have, as those today do, labels adhering to the plastic (or what would then have been glass). No, those old bottles had paper labels attached to the bottle with just a dot of glue here and there on the front and back. But the most significant feature of those old-fashioned labels was that the sides of the paper were crinkled. Corrugated folds and creases marched up and down the edges of the labels where one grasped the bottle. And these crinkles served a purpose—a dual purpose, actually. If one picked up the bottle in darkness, feeling creases beneath one’s fingers alerted the user to the fact that the contents were poisonous. Take too much paregoric, or too large a dose of codeine, and sickness, if not death, would be the result. The corrugated sides also served a second practical function; they provided a grip. It was much harder to drop the bottle and spill a dangerous substance if the label provided a firm grasp.

This all came to mind the other day when I dropped my cell phone into my little granddaughter’s bathwater. Oh, SHIT! I retrieved it quickly enough that no damage was done, yet it struck me immediately that, had the sides of the case been wavy, there would have been far less chance of this accident. Like those old poison bottle labels, a few crinkles could have averted disaster. That led me to think about the bath scrubby that was so often the bane of my existence as I tried, and failed, to find the little ribbon to hang it up after using it. That stupid little ribbon was always the same color as the nylon net scrubby itself, and, standing there, cold, naked and with dripping hair pouring water into my eyes, I could never find the darned thing. Often after fighting and failing to locate the ribbon, I just furiously tossed the scrubby down into the tub rather than hanging it up to dry. If the stupid ribbon had just been a contrasting or darker color, I could have located it immediately and hung the thing up properly.

Extrapolating from this, I considered how many times I’d dropped the blasted shampoo or conditioner or bodywash bottles because the sides, slippery with water and product, were impossible to hold. The bottles slid right through my fingers and crashed to the bottom of the tub, usually on my toes, and usually when the bottle was still mostly full and heavy. Oww-Oww-Ouch! Extremely bad words deleted, ouch! Just a few wavy crinkles would have solved the problem and saved my cringing feet from yet another onslaught.

Ditto the olive oil bottles. I don’t even want to think about the 2018 Olive Oil Disaster on the Freshly Mopped Floor. I was cleaning up that mess for days and days and DAYS. Not to mention what I found when I did the annual “stop pretending like you don’t know it’s there and pull that bottom drawer out from beneath the oven” cleaning.

Contemplating all this, though, it struck me to wonder why we tend to think of every idea, every concept, from previous generations as “old fashioned” notions that can have absolutely no modern relevance. I’m certain contemporary manufacturers, who spend a fortune on designing products for eye appeal, would never even consider a bottle that did not have a sleek, up-to-date appearance. Not for them a papery label with corrugated sides to provide a grip and alert one that the contents could, if misused, be dangerous. How unattractive a bottle, meant to be used in a wet environment, with wavy indentations that made it easy to hold. How ugly to string a black ribbon on the pale pink scrubby so that it would be easy to spot. How foolish to make a sleek cell phone with ridged and grooved grips.

How old-fashioned.

How sensible.

We could all just use a few more crinkles.

Liked this essay? Then you might also enjoy ” ‘New and Improved’ Just Isn’t”, which you can locate in the Archives, below, from March 25, 2020.

New and Improved Just Isn’t

§  The simple fact is, newer isn’t necessarily better.  § 

I admit it: I truly liked the old-fashioned hand crank windows on cars. They were wonderful. Excellent. Unlike power windows, the mechanism virtually never failed, leaving one to the excruciating necessity of duct-taping heavy plastic over a window to keep out the driving rain or bitter winter winds until time and money finally permitted a trip to the repair shop. And on those rare occasions in which a car became so classic that the crank mechanism did, finally, give way, it was a fairly simple repair. But, more importantly, a person could “crack” the window to just precisely that right point to ventilate a parked car. No pressing the power button up and down, over and over, attempting to get the glass just a smidgen or skoosh further down. Nope. One simply turned the hand crank just a tad until that window was in precisely the right position.

Of course, I am also old enough to recall the miraculous front window vent that was once found in every car. When weather was cool enough to drive with the windows down, passengers in the back seat were never blown right to Oz by a fully lowered front window; one cranked (yes, cranked) the windows down, slid those triangular vents open to a 45-degree angle, and voila! Air circulated around and through both front and back seats without power washing either the  passengers or the driver.

The simple fact is, newer isn’t necessarily better. Take, for instance, heating pads which turn themselves off. Now, having known someone who unwisely used an old-school heating pad without an automatic shut-off—used it overnight and incorrectly, lying on it—and received a bad burn thereby, I understand the sense of the automatic shut-off on a heating pad. The problem lies in the fact that such a shut-off doesn’t allow for personal preference or need. In my experience, just about the time when the heating pad has reached the “Ahhh!” factor, easing a muscle ache or abdominal pain, that’s the moment when the dratted thing powers down completely. And with most models, simply pressing the off button for a few seconds does no good. Nope, a complete reboot is necessary. The user must get up, walk over to the wall plug, fully unplug the cord for at least 60 seconds, and then plug it back in to have the cooled pad start cycling upward to heat once more. That get-up/reach-down/unplug-and-wait motion pretty much undoes any good that the heat had begun doing to a tense or torn muscle. For heaven’s sake, why, oh why, isn’t the user permitted determine an automatic shut-off time that might possibly work for an individual ache?

But then, clothes irons these days operate on much the same principle. (And, yes, unlike the Millies, I do occasionally iron some clothing, especially in the summertime. I appreciate the crisp appearance of a freshly starched and pressed pair of linen slacks or cotton shorts, and a clothes iron wastes far fewer kilowatts of electricity than a dryer cycle.) I understand the concept of not burning one’s house down by leaving the clothes iron on to overheat; I simply don’t comprehend why it must shut off right in the middle of pressing the transfer paper to make a graphic tee.

I had one friend whose country home contained a working, antique hand water pump in kitchen. Although their well-water operated, as most do these days, on an electric pump, the hand pump functioned as backup, and she was not about to have it removed—which proved to be a wise decision during the numerous times that thunderstorms took out the power lines.

Newer is simply not necessarily better—as proven by the reaction every time Microsoft introduces a new version of Windows or Word. People loathe them. They despise them. They hate then so much so that, frequently, even hard sell doesn’t reconcile a tech-battered populace to being forced to learn yet another new version. One site after another pops up online, guiding suffering users to ways around all those irritating and unwanted “new and improved” features. I myself, having upgraded to Word 2016 after years of using 2010, have seriously considered paying a simply outrageous amount of money for a program that will allow me to restore my icons to the old 3-D versions instead of the butt-ugly “clean” icons that Microsoft has now foisted on users. (Where are my “Find It” binoculars? How am I to remember that a right-leaning magnifying glass is “Find”, while a left-leaning one is “Zoom”? How, I ask you?!)

No, newer is simply not necessarily better. And so-called progress is often two giant steps backwards—not one small step for man nor woman, and certainly not a giant leap forward for humankind.