The More Things Change

I was with a group of friends the other day and someone asked the time. Before anyone had picked up/turned on/unlocked their phones, I’d glanced at my wrist and said, “Twelve fifteen.”

Everyone looked at me in surprise; I still wear a wristwatch. I knew that I was an anachronism in this.  But I now realized that we have, essentially, returned to the era of the pocket watch.

You know of it, I’m sure; everyone’s seen it in old Westerns and in movies set in the Victorian era. To check the time, a man pulled a chain from a vest or suit pocket and, sometimes after first flipping open a cover, announced the time by looking at a large, hand-held watch.  Occasionally, woman might flip up and read the time from a specialty watch, one having an upside-down dial, which was pinned to the bodice of her blouse.

But wristwatches were being seen occasionally in 1800s, and were standard use by the military late in that century. Sheer practicality made watches popular.  No more waiting for the clock on the town hall to strike; no more the cumbersome chain and multiple movements needed to check on the time—just a quick glance at one’s wrist. Forgetting one’s wristwatch in the 20th century led to the tired joke, “It’s a hair past freckle”, as one glanced at a bare wrist.

But now we have returned to the era of the pocket watch. Unless a smart phone is already in one’s hand, turned on, and unlocked, checking the time means multiple gestures or wasted effort just to find out what the heck time it is. Call me old-fashioned and I will smile proudly: I find it’s easier to just wear a wristwatch.

Of course, when checking the time, one might also be figuring out when the grocery order will be delivered.

Grocery delivery was a common service in the 1800s. Much of the population lived in rural, farming areas outside the cities, and few housewives had either the time or the wagon available to make a long journey into town for groceries and sundries more than monthly. Such trips had to be carefully planned.  But a shopping list could be dropped at the General Store while a male family member was on the way to the blacksmith’s or the feed store, or even by a child walking home from school.  The grocer gathered together the items on the list, debited a running account, and sent the groceries off to the purchasers by an employee making rounds in the store’s delivery wagon.

But cars were invented, urban sprawl happened, and within just a few decades, the supermarket became the standard. The lady of the house made a weekly trek to shop for groceries, pushing a metal cart around packed aisles, Stepford Wife-style.  No supermarket delivered groceries; that was an antique concept, simply laughable.  Until recently.  The pendulum has swung once more to the other side of the metronome, and now fewer and fewer full carts are seen being guided through the aisles of the grocery store.  Busy purchasers log in and click through an on-line list to select their food purchases.  Some arrange a pick-up time; others have their foodstuffs delivered; and a few even have someone enter their homes and shelve their goods.

Leaving entirely aside the fact that I don’t want anyone waltzing into my house and deciding where my well-organized spices belong, nor seeing the likely state of my pantry and cabinets (which gremlins apparently mangle into untidiness just hours after I’ve cleaned and rearranged them), I resist this whole idea. Having someone else choosing my cucumbers and lettuce just strikes me as a bad plan.  Is that disinterested clerk going to root to the back of the row to pick out the bagged salad with the most distant ‘use by’ date?  Not likely.  Are they going to know that I will substitute blueberries, but not raspberries, when blackberries are unavailable?  Are they going to select the freshest package of mushrooms?  Not to mention that spending an hour pushing a heavy, packed grocery cart hither and yon about the store might be the mildest form of exercise, but at least adds to my daily step count.

Nevertheless, a few years ago when I was housebound throughout the month of December with a wicked illness called adenovirus-68 (the “Killer Cold”), I would probably have paid good money to have someone deliver goods to replenish my depleted pantry.  Like those 1800s folk, I’d have used the service out of sheer necessity, rather than modern luxury.  Unfortunately, at the time, grocery delivery wasn’t yet a glimmer on the horizon, which meant that I was down to my last can of chicken noodle soup before I was finally well enough to venture out and restock my shelves.

Fashion, I’ve always heard, repeats itself. Save anything long enough, and it will come back in style.  So also, it seems, do all the other aspects of daily living.  Or, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Apples of Gold

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

I first read that proverb many years ago in a book of daily prayer, and it caught my imagination and lodged there. I visualized a tiny, beautifully-crafted, three-dimensional, 24-karat golden apple, suspended within a shining circlet of silver.

If I had start-up funds, I would produce a thousand such pendants, and around the edge of each silver circle would be inscribed the words, “Thank You”.

It strikes me that saying thank you, either in words or writing, is fast going the way of the dodo. I genuinely doubt that toddlers are taught these days to sing the little rhyme that small children of my generation sang repeatedly: There are two little magic words / that will open any door with ease / One little word is “thanks” / And the other little word is “please”.

Thinking on the lack of gratitude displayed by recipients today, I vividly recall the dismay that I felt, years ago, when a coworker for whom we’d given a baby shower came in the following week with a single thank-you card which she proceeded to hang on the office bulletin board. Thirty people had gone to a great deal of trouble for this woman: provided funds for food and decorations, bought and wrapped lovely gifts.  They had each individually done a good deal of work to make the event special for her.  Yet not one of them received, even verbally, personal thanks—just a cheap card, quickly written, stuck on a corkboard with a pushpin.

Years later, as I discussed this upsetting recollection with a friend, she related to me an even worse incident: A family had moved into the area, and one thoughtful neighbor had stopped by to welcome the newcomers to the neighborhood with a home baked pie. Standing there on the doorstep with her offering in her hands and smiling words of welcome, she was told by the new neighbor, “Well, if I’d wanted a pie, I would have baked one!”

I’d barely recovered from my shock at this story when my friend went on to describe a further incident of rudeness in place of thanks and courtesy. She’d taken a loaf of home-baked bread to a neighbor out of appreciation for several things he’d done.  Weeks later, not having heard even so much as what he thought of the bread, she innocently asked him if he’d enjoyed it.  “It was awfully dense,” was all he said to her.  Not, “Thanks, can’t remember the last time I had home-baked bread”, nor even, “It was nice of you to go to so much trouble.”  Just a criticism of the food’s texture.

These and a dozen other incidents are the reason that I feel saying “thank you” is, like so many other common courtesies, becoming a dying art. And that saddens me, for it speaks badly of our civilization as a whole.  If we cannot express gratitude to the giver, do we even truly experience feelings of appreciation?

I don’t give myself a free pass on this situation, either, for I know there are all too many times when I’ve forgotten to at least speak words of thanks. Those memories shame me.  But I have a few other recollections, perhaps balancing the shameful ones, in which I’ve gone the extra mile to thank someone.  I especially remember the time when my teenage daughter, driving home late at night with three friends in the car, was t-boned by a driver who ran a red light.  A witness to the accident not only called 911 but stopped, got out of his car to direct traffic around the accident scene until the police arrived, and then provided the officer with a description of the accident.

Days later when the police report became available, I found the name and address of the witness. I sat down immediately to write him a thank-you note for his actions, concluding my words with, “You helped keep those kids safe, and I’m so grateful”.

I hoped then, and still hope, that he felt he’d received an apple of gold in a setting of silver.

Proverbs, Old and New

I once read a proverb, purported to be Native American, which said, “When a great soul dies, the winds go mad.”

Well, judging by the number of horrific windstorms we’ve endured in Indiana over the past few years, I’d say the state, if not the entire planet, is rapidly emptying of great souls.

I adore proverbs and adages, though. Some are meaningful, some obscene, some absolutely hilarious, but they all delight me as wondrous workings of the English language.

When I was a very young office worker, my female supervisor strolled into the hidden department where we lowly clerical staff worked in seclusion, sequestered from the more important (read: male) employees. Since this was an all-female office, and in a time long before the era of political correctness, many things were said that today would have one immediately on the chopping block.  On this particular day, our boss announced to us that she was “making three tracks today.”  We all looked at her in confusion; what did she mean?  “I’m making three tracks,” she repeated, and then, with a great slap on her own backside, “and the third one is the deepest and the widest.”  Ah. The light dawned: Her ass was dragging.

I loved that phrase and have used it (and explained it) many times since.

Another employee in an office where I later worked in Charleston, South Carolina, legendary for her ability to save money, told us proudly that she could “squeeze a nickel until the buffalo mooed.” Again, a marvelous aphorism that I, also being a legendary tightwad, adopted as my own.

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” always tickles me, because I do precisely that. I’ve chosen many a book (and thereby discovered many a favorite author) by selecting a book based entirely on well-drawn cover art and an intriguing title.  I’m also notorious for rejecting books with what I think of as “high school art class” cover art.  No doubt I’ve missed many a good read that way, but, there you have it: I do judge my books by their covers.

During my childhood years, though, the saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too,” bewildered me. That was because I thought of  the word “have” in the context of being served: “I’ll have a piece of cake, yes, please.”  It took me until my teen years to figure out that the aphorism meant that once eaten, one no longer had a piece of cake.  (And speaking of cake, I have learned never to say that some task will be “a piece of cake”, because if I dare to say those words, it definitely won’t be!)  I suppose I wasn’t always “the sharpest knife in the drawer” in respect to some sayings, though, for it wasn’t until the era of political correctness that I belatedly realized the saying, “The pot calling the kettle black” was based on a racial slur.  I try not to use it any longer.  I get around it by sighing dramatically and saying, “Pots and kettles, pots and kettles”, thereby allowing people to make anything they like of the statement.

I watched and delighted in the cultural evolution of the old euphemism, “Two ants short of a picnic” or “A few bricks shy of a load” into a raft of similar but updated catchphrases such as “Two french-fries short of a Happy Meal”. Ever a Star Trek fan, I was enchanted when, “His elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top floor” morphed into, “He’s not operating on all thrusters.”

But perhaps the best, funniest, and most obscene saying of all I must credit to my paternal grandmother, Marie. All of us, her many grandchildren, heard her remark upon this time and again, and it is just as riotous a description today as when she said it each time a heavy rainstorm began:  “It’s raining,” she would say with a shake of her head, “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

‘nuff said.