How To

When you age, every day brings indications that you are no longer young. Among the most recent of mine was the announcement that I am to be a grandfather.

After I adjusted to the surprise and remembered advice from one older than myself that it is far more fun to be a grandpop than a sleep-deprived, diaper fuddling, spoon feeding parent, a how-to-be-a-grandfather book from our son’s in-laws arrived at my birthday celebration. The birthday was a significant number; the book, more so.

I tend to be an impulsive person, more trusting of my ability to adapt creatively to a situation, than one who researches a problem and plans a response. The disadvantage of this tendency is that endeavors begin with mistakes, faux pas, awkward pauses and a rare but occasional pratfall that will dependably enrage those among the research and planning species.

That, and, for portion of my journalistic career, I wrote how-to articles on a variety of subjects whose intention wasn’t so much to show people how to do something as to create a need that would send them to the publication’s advertisers. I told eager readers how to upgrade their kitchens and bathrooms, buy a luxury vehicle, score well on college admissions tests and get into college (legally), and gamble in a casino. I reached a career peak when I wrote an exhaustive piece about buying a house. This article almost won an award, and I felt quite happy about it until I bought my first house. I was not prepared for the humiliation, frustration, mortgage lender bait-and-switch tactics and other travails, none of which I mentioned in my well researched and carefully planned how-to article.

I have asked myself often if I should open this grandpop how-to, turn a few pages, smile at the breezy generalizations, cautionary warnings and numerous promises of righteous effort leading to certain success. Every how-to writer employs these tropes, not because they are the actual way things happen, but because they organize the information and make a pleasant reading experience.

What stops me from opening the book is another element of grand parenting: the willful, occasionally charming but ultimately peculiar indulgence in superstition. Though my grandparents indulged me, spoiled me and, most importantly, showed me that there was far more to life than not doing things that annoyed my parents, they would become sharp and prickly about bad luck, evil eyes, the colors of clothes, the effect Saturday morning TV cartoons may have on my ability to get into a decent college, and whether or not I should sleep next to an open window on chilly nights. I learned that the path to good intentions had strange detours. One could jinx an outcome by speaking of it, or buying things like baby clothing and nursery furniture before a baby is born. Even the position of a crib could have consequence.

Having entered the ranks of the older and wiser, I know where these superstitious responses come from. Among the many things the years teach you is that, no matter how confident you are in your ability to improvise, no matter how much you research and plan, unreasonable things happen far more often than you’d like. As much as we pray our effort will result in the fortunate, serendipitous or just plain lucky, we become even more fearful of the opposite, and worse.  We come to realize that life isn’t about getting and spending, achieving a “level of success,” doing the right thing or even saving for a rainy day, but, rather, surviving the sucker punches, sideswipes and other stuff that you didn’t read about in how-to articles or self-help manuals.

It’s the fear that those odd, “folk” beliefs attempt to remedy. Despite centuries of rational, scientific endeavor, the ends and beginnings of life remain mysterious. Do we really chose the time, place and parents who will give us birth? Is there anything beyond that bright light that some near-death survivors glimpse before they are brought back to life?

Will scattering salt around an empty nursery, positioning the head of the bassinet toward the east and refraining from buying infant clothing until the birth, make any noticeable difference? Perhaps not, but we wish it would, and, as much as rationality has made this world, our irrational expectations, our hopes and dreams, our idle fantasies and active striving, seem to keep the world turning when everything else won’t.

So I’ll wait until the baby comes before I open the book.





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