Taking You For Granted

entry_31How wedded we are, creatures of routine, creatures of leisure, to the frail illusion of convenience. It’s only when our car stalls by the side of the road, as we try to describe to the friendly AAA representative where we are over the cell phone, that the illusion flickers. It’s only as we try to make small talk with the uninterested tow truck representative that we realize that comfort can be detached from guilt only to the extent that we are detached from necessity. It’s only as we nod with earnest sincerity to the mechanic’s prognosis that we know how far from home we’ve wandered.

You’d never recognize yourself if you met yourself. Not really. The figure in the mirror is familiar only as your exact opposite. In our own skin we enjoy the perception of perfect synchronization, and of spatial awareness knit into a unified whole. But in a room, left to right and right to left, a self-conscious smile and a swipe to brush the hair behind the ear, this other you would be as a stranger.

Similarly, the unexplored land is right around the corner. There be dragons. All it takes is a turn of the head at an unexpected moment, one that catches our expectations off guard. And when we are at the mercy of serendipity, we often get to meet another stranger. The stranger who is ourselves when we haven’t had time to practice.

Factory Settings

entry_32My great grandparents could speak with authority about outhouses. I once found a cracked photograph of them fawning over a new refrigerator–the kind that required a fresh supply of ice to stay cold. The device was new then, and they were proud to own one, and a side benefit of ownership was the opportunity to forge a new friendship with the friendly neighborhood iceman. He would drop by every few days or so, they told me, to deliver their ice, hefting the dripping brick up into the metal-lined compartment with a pair of oversized tongs.

In the age of talking appliances, tongs have largely fallen out of favor, and icemen sit in their retirement villages absentmindedly rubbing their club-like forearms. It takes a new generation before any change is accepted without contempt, a generation who is unaware that things used to be different. It’s the change itself that people mistrust, not the innovation that comes of it. The innovation comes because, really, that’s what we want. We just don’t want to have to change our routine to get it. So leave it to the younger set, until, little by little, the old ways are forgotten.

My great grandfather bought a modern washer for the clothes, a small concession to modernity and quiet acknowledgement of failing joints. Before that my great grandparents made do with the traditional washboard and rollers, which were fairly dangerous contraptions. Seems once you got the rollers going they didn’t much care if they were rolling the wash, or the sleeve of the shirt you were still wearing, or your careless body parts.

So there my great grandfather was, sitting down in the unfurnished basement with the new washer, not out of pride, but because he had no faith in its abilities. He would sit there in front of it from beginning to end, a wary participant in the march of progress. He watched from his chair, rocking forward and back over the concrete. Whenever the machine would begin to shudder–and it often would–he’d pull himself to his feet and hold the machine down for as long as it took for it to finish. He never adjusted any of the knobs, and would tell anyone who asked, “This is how it came from the factory, and I assume they know what they’re doing.”

For this same reason his newfangled color television displayed everything with an even green tint. It was such a disconcerting picture that my grandfather once went so far as to balance the tint correctly, an act of philanthropy purely in the interest of sanity preservation. But on a later visit he saw that that the tint had been returned faithfully to its factory-green. And there it would stay.

You have to wonder if these elder folk clung to their atavism as a conscious form of self-punishment. Maybe they liked being rustic. Maybe they knew that it was kind of cute, in a way. Sometime after my great grandfather’s death I recall a political discussion between my mother and my great grandmother. “Who are you going to vote for?” my mother asked. She’s like me that way: sometimes she asks questions she knows the answers to because it’s not the answer she’s interested in, but the telling of it. My great grandmother said, “Why I’m going to vote Republican. Because my husband voted Republican, and that’s good enough for me.” I suppose that it had never occurred to her to question the factory settings either.