Life Rules (Or: How Not to Get Yourself in Trouble, Even Though You Will Anyway)

The aged man looked at me seriously and thoughtfully through his wizened eyes; as he moved his hand in a graceful flourish, I strained to hear him share with me the experiences of a long and rich lifetime. As we sat outside on the deck in the autumn leaves and he faced me, alone, across the garden table, I could sense the timeless wisdom of his presence and the respect it occasions. Then I thought: It's really gross that he's drooling in his iced tea.

But as he coughed and cleared his throat, I had time to reflect on our conversation. It was one of those conversations with an elderly gentleman where you flip-flop between two opinions: "Is he a seer or idiot?" At any moment he might either make a deep comment on how the current international situation echoed that of his younger years, or suggest that everyone's problems would be solved if we re-introduced public flogging.

At the same time, he was looking at his inevitable pendant watch and putting a tiny brown wad of snuff in his cheek. (I wonder what future generations will say about this practice: "Look at this, Zork! People actually chewed on leaves? Did they moo while doing it too? Ha, ha. Turn on the hologram projector; they're showing Star Trek XXXVI." "No time, Woot! We have to teleport to Neptune to see the Rolling Stones. People say it might be their last tour this time!")

But I'm getting off topic. Before he fell asleep, perhaps to reflect on the Great War or on something amusing that Roosevelt told him, he shared with me some inspired advice on living that he had learned during his time on earth. At the time, I was about to finish high school and my adult life lay in front of me. As his words helped to shape my future, I think that these lessons should be shared by Gen-X'ers with nephews or nieces or young friends, possibly because I ignored his advice entirely and made each mistake which I recount now. And so I respectfully pass these lessons on to the ages.

1. Don't drool in your iced tea. Sorry; just testing. The real number one is as follows.

The Great Inspired Lessons of Life

1. Don't buy an Italian sports car.

One of the great status symbols for a young person who has recently earned his driver's license and did not run over someone's cat (It's not easy to get fur off the wheel wells, believe me; you probably thought WD-40 would do everything) or receive enough speeding tickets in the first month to enable the city hall to add another wing is to buy a sports car. No more boring paper-bag generic econoboxes like your friends have, you decide; you want a rare, unusual, exotic sports car like no one else has. You search out the car ads, looking through the old muscle cars with a skull and crossbones on the hood (not good for showing up at your job interview in), and some old Porsches or Volkswagens. But these cars are expensive pieces of junk; you would probably be happier with an antique Fiat (a relatively inexpensive piece of junk.)

Once you own a vehicle with these magical qualities, you will find that it needs constant repairing every time you, oh, say, start the engine. But no matter; you enjoy tinkering and adjusting teeny little parts and components. This tinkering and adjusting becomes progressively less fun when it is raining at 2 AM and you are twenty blocks from home rather than being inside your heated garage.

And when you travel, by bus, to the dealer to talk to the friendly fellow with the gold chains and dirty shirt unbuttoned halfway down, you will discover that the parts for your car are equally rare, unusual, and exotic like no one else has. It may take a while, the owner says, as the mechanic needs to have the part imported by birch bark canoe from Milan. As you wait, perhaps one of your friends with a boring, generic paper-bag econobox can help you get to school. Be sure that you don't drool on the dashboard.

2. Be careful what you take in college.

When I finished high school, I was sat down by my parents for the inevitable nice, friendly, casual, 93-decibel interrogation on the topic of "What are you going to do for the rest of your life, until you die, die, DIE?" You know you're in trouble when your dad holds out a notepad. But you aren't fazed, largely because you were asked that question every fifteen seconds by your friends' parents after the graduation ceremonies because you weren't clever enough to volunteer to help stack chairs.

You were going to work for awhile, perhaps for a year or two, after which you would perhaps go to technical school to learn to fix airplanes, or to cook stinky French vegetables that no one eats, or to program a computer, or even to drive a truck (and you can get a head start now with some Johnny Cash records).

But all this time the words of the local college recruitment officer are ringing in your ears: "Go to university or you'll never amount to anything. You'll be laying in the gutter in oil-soaked rags drinking warm rainwater out of a paper cup (and you'll drool in it!) and sleeping in strip bar entranceways. At best, you'll get a job washing dishes or sweeping floors for the rest of your life. Studying Renaissance Art is the best way to plan for tomorrow's globalized world!" And so you realize that you were so wild and reckless in your madcap and hooligan ways to have considered otherwise. So you enrol.     


But it's a lie. The college recruitment officer is a rake and a cormorant, for after you slave away four years of your life researching ten-page papers on exciting topics such as Henry the Fifth's manicurist and the literary meaning of poached eggs in the Roman Empire, you will stand with pride at your graduation ceremony as you are awarded your BA papers. After this, your friends' parents (or perhaps your friends' spouses by now) will ask you, "So, what are you going to be doing for the rest of your life, until you die, die, DIE?" Some things never change.

And then you will spend the next four months looking for work, only to find that you are not hired to be a globe-trotting executive or newspaper reporter because these jobs are held by old men with grey pinstripe charcoal suits, or their children with MBAs from the Superposh IT Institute of Greater Calcutta. Or, you will not be hired because the internet has eliminated those jobs entirely on its way to becoming self-aware. You are also not hired in a labor vocation because the employers are, for some perverse reason, more impressed with someone who has spent a year learning how to realign the argphutz in the fulgtranq than with someone who can interpret Milton (although you are really good at finding spelling errors in the application.)

You aren't really taken with the idea of doing graduate work so that you can write ninety page papers on Henry the Fifth's manicurist, and you already have enough student loan debt to declare yourself a third-world country. If you live in Canada, you've used up your grace period for paying your student loans, and you can already hear the Dobermans barking and the electric shock equipment warming up at the collection agency. Thus you find a job washing dishes and sweeping floors. No shame in honest work. But now you are a dishwasher with a difference; the boss has told you that, in light of your university edification, you can have alternate Saturdays off. Isn't education wonderful?

3. Women are trouble.

When you were little, one called you a funny name and so you pulled her pigtail, tipping her off her tricycle. Your parents grounded you. In class, they had high, screechy voices and bawled and wet their pants if you looked at them wrong. When you were older, you were going out with one until she publicly denounced you in favor of her new boyfriend who could rollerblade better and swore more. In high school, they avoided you and all bragged that they were going out with college students (hopefully not the BA candidates) and musicians with long hair and tattoos ("Because Marilyn Manson'll always be cool, man!") But now it's going to get better, right? Now you're older and you're going to begin to understand women, right?

Well... oh, but first pardon me while I burst into uncontrolled laughter. Women are always going to be trouble and they will always be confusing. Some of them take night courses in it. The good news is, at least I think it's good news, is that you are now considered an 'equal' to them. As a college student yourself they will now be interested in you and will go to great lengths to secure a vict—er, a boyfriend. They begin to wear prettier clothes and realize that makeup and plaster is applied differently. As a result, your best and closest friends will begin dropping like flies and will walk down the hallways glassy-eyed, telling you how grieved they are because they have been separated from their beloved for ten minutes.

When you began college you had lots of friends to go out with; but now that they are all paired up, you go out about as much as someone with swine flu. Your pastor begins to send you calendars from the seminary. You begin listening to your brother's old Air Supply CDs. When you realize that you last had a conversation with a female while calling directory assistance, you begin to feel that there is something lacking in your life.

But all good things.. bad things?, come to a start.. or is it an end? Anyway, you eventually find a girl that you get along with. You even get along with her cat. (If you don't, maybe by now you have found a way to get fur off your wheel wells. Want to go for a ride, kitty?) You have met her parents, her father did not resemble Clint Eastwood, he did not greet you at the door with an assault rifle, and there was no rat poison in your jello salad. Nor did you drool in it.

That was the extent of the old gentleman's advice. I wish that he would have continued our conversation that day, now that I realize that he was not a doddering, senile fool. No; he was definitely one of the more coherent fools I have met. But I would have liked him to tell me more, perhaps on world peace, or on important things like determining which chocolates in the assortment box have nuts and which ones have that mushy green glob that tastes like toothpaste and leaves mixed together. Yes, he might even have stayed awake long enough to pass on to me the meaning of life and how to make this a better world. However, he did manage to leave me this tantalizing fragment: "If you run over a cat," he whispered, "WD-40 won't get the fur off your wheel wells. Warm water and vinegar seems to help."