The phrase “older and wiser” comes to mind often, if I’m in a hopeful mood. Otherwise, I have to dwell on the fact that only one of those two conditions is guaranteed to us. The other is icing on the cake.
My grandfather, being of Scots-Irish blood, had a favorite expression: “Live and learn, die and forget it.”
Hardly a year passes, though, in which I don’t experience at least one quantum breakthrough wisdom-wise, particularly since I subscribe to the definition, “Wisdom is that still, small voice in your mind that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? You probably shouldn’t do it again.’”
The past year is still a bit too recent for me to put its ups and downs into perspective, but there are any number of Golden Oldies from past years, in that regard. For example...
•Wisdom Nugget No. 1: “Be careful which finger you point with, at rush hour.” Once, in heavy traffic, a young speedster made a death-defying left turn in front of me at an intersection. It was only by great effort on both our parts that we were able to avoid colliding. Our cars skidded to a stop at odd angles, blocking the intersection, and as other motorists started honking, I felt the urge to point out to the offending driver that I’d clearly had the right of way. I pointed upward vigorously to draw his attention to the fact that the traffic light he’d swerved through was still green on my side. From that distance, though, he apparently mistook my choice of pointing finger and leaped out of his car with a lug wrench in hand, in order to give the discussion a more personal touch. Only by accelerating in a hurry past this gathering imbroglio was I able to avoid a bad outcome.
•Wisdom Nugget No. 2: “The word ‘ma’am’ is a nice Southern tradition, but it’s not for everybody.”
I was working in the heart of the heart of New York City, in one of those neighborhoods where you have to bend over almost backwards to see the little patch of blue sky beyond the skyscrapers, when I realized I had left home without toothpaste and mouthwash. Fortunately, this was in the time when stores still had signs saying “Sundries,” meaning assorted stuff, and I eased into one and rounded up the items I needed. The lady behind the counter rang them up and asked me, “Do you want those in a bag?” Without thinking, I told her “No, ma’am.”
The look of pure hatred she gave me was stunning in its intensity. “I want you to know,” she said through gritted teeth, “that I am not a [blank-blank] ‘ma’am’. Have you got that?”
I came within a half inch of responding, “Yes, ma’am,” but caught myself and instead nodded vigorously as I made my getaway.
Lesson learned. When you’re north of the Mason-Dixon, use that salutation with discernment, and at your own risk.
•Wisdom Nugget No. 3: “Do not, by any means, bring yourself to the personal attention of a Secret Service agent.”
The newspaper I was working for as a photographer learned that President Nixon was coming to town, and did the paperwork to get me a “PRESS” badge so that I could stand in the front row during his speech. I scoped out the venue and determined that the front row was still a good distance away, though, and decided I needed a much longer telephoto lens than the one I had, if I wanted to capture any of the president’s facial expressions.
So I bought a lens that, despite being a cheap off-brand that would fall apart weeks afterward, was a thing of beauty. It was a 400mm, and by the time its lens shade was affixed, it was about two feet long and had roughly the circumference of (I would not realize until later) a grenade launcher.
The president was introduced, and though he started out slow he gradually grew more animated (well, animated for Nixon, at least) and I eagerly raised my new 400mm in hopes of capturing one of his hand gestures. At that instant, the row of young men who flanked the podium — black suits, impassive faces, and earphones — all looked my way and, by instinct, reached into the inside pockets of their suit coats.
I’m sure I set some kind of speed record lowering my grenade launcher ... uh, lens ... and smiling at them with what I hoped was some reasonable likeness of the expression Jesus wore when he preached to the little children. The Secret Service agents’ hands came out of their pockets and all of us took a communal deep breath. Though it would be sometime the next day before my internal organs dislodged from their instinctual gathering place up near my larynx. Fortunately, I didn’t have to do an interview after the speech.
As far as I can tell, there was no event last year that matched the drama of any of these learning experiences. And I’m thankful. Maybe this wisdom stuff is actually working for me. Now, all I’ve got to do is make sure I don’t die and forget it.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, books, photos and radio features are available on his website carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 and is archived afterward on his website.