San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 15th, 2008
A guide to old people

The Devil’s Clack Dish: A Column
Scene Editor


Leonard Bernstein gave lectures on classical music to young people. There are guides for young people on classic literature, mathematics, physics and fine art. But nobody has given young people a guide to aging and old people. I don’t even think there is an “Old People For Dummies” guide, and this is quite unusual because I believe the only other subject the “For Dummies” franchise has not covered is cold fusion. It may be in the works, though.

A guide to old people could be really helpful, I think. You may never get a youth to read Crime and Punishment or listen to “Winter Dreams” by Tchaikovsky, but they’re going to age, whether they like it or not. They are forced to deal with old people every day. I am a card-carrying (AARP, natch) member of the proud nation of Old People – so, here, presented as a public service, are some answers to the most popular questions that younger people have about older folks.

Why are older people such skinflints?

Money just isn’t what it used to be. And it never is.

When I was a kid, my grandpa would regale me with anecdotes about the delicious oranges he would buy for a penny a piece at the train station. This was generally a prelude to the half dozen pennies he would give me for my piggy bank. I didn’t think all that highly of the pennies, although I recall thinking that I probably had enough pennies to buy the entire state of Florida if only I had been a kid when my grandpa was a boy.

Now I regale the cashier at the convenience store with tales of how when I first started driving gas was thirty-three cents a gallon and a pack of smokes was thirty cents. An entire tank of gas for my Chevy Vega was around three bucks. I usually grouse about this now as I pay the thirty bucks for gas and get a pack of smokes for $4.50. When I go to the grocery store I lament that forty bucks, which used to pay for at least two weeks worth of groceries, can hardly fill up two bags now. All of the sudden, the money you thought was so valuable has all the buying power of a set of Monopoly cash and you don’t own any hotels or utilities. It’s frustrating.

When an older person complains that you don’t know the value of a dollar it is usually because you do know the value of a dollar and this is a pretty irritating, inflated figure. Imagine working for $1.10 an hour for forty hours a week for a couple of years and then one day you look around and find out that a dollar and ten cents won’t buy a loaf of bread.

Older people aren’t out of touch. They still buy gas and groceries, but they’re more than a little miffed about the prices. Fifty years ago, you could buy a house for the sticker price of a subcompact car. You see a car, an older person sees a house. Dig that.

This will more than likely happen to you. Your kids will ask you for a thousand dollars for school junk and you will crankily mention that a grand used to buy your entire school wardrobe, a Sony Playstation and a mess of CDs. You will give your kids a hundred-dollar bill and they will roll their eyes at your cheapness.

Tip: When I was a kid I had to triple the figure I wanted when asking my dad for money. So if I wanted ten bucks, I’d ask for thirty. He’d give me five, which, all things considered, was better than nothing.

Why are old people so freaky about the phone?

Here’s a little short history by way of explanation:

It’s a little known fact that the telephone used to be an instrument of torture that made you sit in one place and listen to someone talk while you desperately wanted to go to the bathroom. You had to explain this to the caller (or more likely make an excuse like your teapot was boiling or your cat wanted out – bathroom behavior was not suitable phone conversation), put the receiver down, go to the bathroom and then come back to the phone.

Then the caller would say, “Oh, wait, there’s someone at the door, I’ll be right back,” and you would wait while they answered the door. Then, you would want a cup of coffee while you were chatting and you’d make up some excuse to put the phone down and get a cup.

This went on until your ear hurt or the caller had to go. The caller, according to the etiquette of the time, had to end the call. If you ended the call, the caller felt offended. No kidding. During the course of this phone call, your time was totally eaten up — you couldn’t be driving somewhere or doing the laundry or dusting (sure, you could have a really long phone cord, but they were hard to control and unsightly).

Sometimes, you just didn’t have time for a phone call, but if you answered the phone, you were now at the mercy of the caller. Yes, you could refuse to answer the phone, but what if it was really important? What if someone was hurt or in the hospital? What if it was an emergency? And if you didn’t answer the phone and the caller was sure you were supposed to be home, they would worry and drive over to your place or call your neighbors to come over and check on you.

My dad hated the torture of the telephone so much that if we were eating dinner and the phone rang, he would get up from the table, pick up the telephone receiver, yell “We’re eating,” at the caller and hang the phone up loudly as her glared at all of us accusatorily. We learned to tell everyone to never call us between six and seven p.m.

Then the answering machine arrived and our time became our own again. We could screen calls. We could get messages. We could pick up an important call and ignore the aluminum siding pitch or lawn care service sales calls. We were free.

The portable wireless phone came and all was even better. Now we could get that cup of coffee and answer the door (although going to the bathroom is, was and ever shall be a tacky classless thing to do while you are on the phone). We could let the cat out, put in a load of laundry and chat while we worked. Oh, joyous land of technical expertise!

When the cell phone’s technology became affordable for all there were even more advantages; you could call from your car for directions, while you were at the store you could call home and find out the name of that cough medicine that junior was supposed to take, your doctor could be immediately contacted in an emergency and above all, you were never stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night with a broken down car and no way to get help.

And a funny thing happened — people started to use the phone as if it were an actual person. Instead of talking to human beings they did not know, people could now talk to their friends and ignore the people in front of them. They never had to meet anybody else or be polite to anybody else or even acknowledge that there were other people in the world besides themselves and their friends. Not only that, but they could play video games and send text messages (now you can read stupid conversations as well as speak them – ah, progress!) when they were bored or in a place where they did not want their conversations overheard. The device that used to make life easier had now become their life.

So, in my lifetime, I have known people who were around when the telephone was a brand new invention and I know people who can’t remember a time when the telephone was not their constant companion. We have gone from writing love letters expressing the heart’s deepest wishes for the beloved to texting “U R HOT.” A letter expressing sorrow and regret has been replaced with the message, “MY BAD.” I’m not saying that contemporary emotions are shallow. I’m just saying they read that way. The most popular literature of our time gets erased with the push of a button (which is, no doubt, a good thing).

So if you are wondering why life seems so fast and shallow – it isn’t. It isn’t at all. We just write it that way. That’s what makes old people freaky about the telephone. So cut them some slack because, FYI, you are going to need the whole words they have been using for years that are neither acronyms nor abbreviations.

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