Last week a smart woman told me to do something stupid. I said no, and she argued that even if the stupid thing didn’t help me, it wouldn’t hurt me either. I gave her reasons why I thought this thing she suggested was dumb. She huffed and said she’d been doing her job for 23 years, and she’d seen this thing work over and over. She didn’t come right out and scream at me to shut up and give in, but that may have been a matter of good breeding.

When she pulled out her 23 years experience, like Colt revolver at a gunfight, that’s when she lost me. I’d been teetering towards doing her dumb thing, but her vast experience meant nothing to me. Think about it. If I suggested that you start steering your car with your feet, would you fling off your sneakers and jump in the driver’s seat just because I’d seen it work for 23 years? If you would, please meet me at your bank with the keys to your house and a pair of fur-lined handcuffs.

Bobby Heinlein wrote, “There’s no virtue in being old, it just takes a long time.” Of course, he was an older fellow when he wrote it, but the sentiment still applies. The young may be wise and the old foolish, just as easily as the other way around. If I’ve done something for a generation, my head’s now so full of the things I know that there’s no room for the things I don’t know.

Today I found myself heaping gentle contempt on that well-meaning woman with 23 years of experience. Then I asked myself what my wife might say to me. My wife is always on my side in the ways that count. This means she is frequently not on my side when I’m behaving foolishly. Then she explains the other side, which is good for me in the end. In this case I’ll paraphrase her imaginary advice to me as, “You behave exactly the same way, dumbass.”

And of course, she is correct. She’s correct even when she’s only present in an imaginary sense, and I must say that’s a nice trick. But now that the mirror has been shoved in my face, I have to look at myself fairly hard. And that leads me to wonder about the ways in which a generation ago I was wise and today am foolish.

Buy cheap beer. My younger, wiser self ignored irrelevancies such as brand and flavor when buying beer. He only concerned himself with cost. If he could get a case of Milwaukee’s Best for $4.00, he bought a half dozen of them. Today I may pay $10.00 for a six-pack of fine, imported beer, but my young self knew that after the first three or four cans all beer tastes the same.

Don’t try to predict the future. I worry about the future these days. I think about investing for retirement, about the job market, and about home prices in my neighborhood. I even budget. If my younger self could see me, he’d snicker at the old guy wasting his time. He’d know that I can’t control any of these things, and that they’ll happen whether I worry about them or not. When they happen, that’s the time to deal with them. The young me understood this in the way that only those who drive a 15 year old Malibu that may throw a rod any day can understand it.

Don’t worry too much about having a job. My young self loved having a job, since having money let him buy cheap beer and pay rent and go out with his friends. But he didn’t fret about losing a job or finding another one. In fact, he was a lot more likely to keep his job when he didn’t act paranoid about losing it, and the job was less annoying too. My young self would be appalled to see me obsess over having a job, and young me would probably write older me off as a heart attack waiting to happen.

Buy stuff used. I admit that now I like to buy new things. There’s something about being the first person whose butt has embedded itself into that couch. But my young self knew that was nothing but conceit. Why buy a bed when you can buy your roommate’s brother’s futon for ten bucks? It’s just as good and is cheaper by two orders of magnitude. Young me would tell older me that used stuff is almost always better than new stuff, if I can just get past my big, fat ego.

Hang out with people you know, not people you look at. My young self spent a lot of time with his friends. They went to crappy bars, and to movies, and to play Frisbee golf, and to Shakespeare in the Park, and to dance clubs where the girls had fun torturing them. I can’t think of a single time that a friend called to say, “Hey, let’s go to that happy hour where the toquitos made us puke last time,” and young me replied, “Sorry, I’m watching TV tonight. Baywatch is on.” Young me knew that even puking with my friends makes a better memory than David Hasselhoff with no shirt on.

Don’t read editorials or reviews. Today I feel oppressed by the sense that there’s so much to know. Is Congress going insane, is Europe going down the toilet, will The Hobbit be any good, which news network is the biggest gang of lying bastards? It’s just too much. My young self simply assumed right out of the gate that every person older than him was lying to him about everything. If everyone says that interest rates will keep going up, just assume that rates will go down and move on. Go see whatever movies you want, even if all the reviewers say that “Caddyshack” sucks. My young self understood that there’s not too much to know. There’s just too much to worry about.

Tell people what you think. My young self rarely hid his thoughts. If he thought you were an overripe cluster of dangling camel scat, you probably knew it almost right away. People didn’t wonder what my young self thought. He sometimes earned trouble for himself, and a few people didn’t like him much, but he didn’t walk around trying to remember what not to say to dangling camel scat guy. When he said what he thought and people liked it, he knew he’d found a good place to be. He filtered the undesirable people and places out of his world by being a nasty jerk. It was a win-win.

Looking back now I see that young me was often wise, while older me has become foolish. Maybe this will help me empathize with my fellow foolish old guys, but I’m not sure I can recapture any of that youthful wisdom. I guess I can try. Come by this weekend—we’ll sit on my futon, do dumb stuff, and drink cheap beer.

The wisdom of youth. I'm the one praying for death.

I spent a good part of last night wondering why mice can’t use bazookas. Well, I say that I was wondering about this, but that may be a little misleading. My wife would probably say that was whining rather than wondering. Mouse-bazooka capability doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. If not bazookas, then something else that’s destructive on a similar scale. Napalm would be nice, or maybe they could topple a big church over onto something they don’t like.

For 20 chapters of the story I’m writing, my mice have lived in obliterating terror of their antagonist, and now it’s time to kill the bastard. Sixteen chapters ago I set up the ideal plot device to perform the coup de grâce. My problem is that when the coup comes, my readers will have seen it coming from 16 chapters away. That’s a lousy way to reward them for sticking with the story for 20 chapters. I need a Left Turn.

My understanding of the Left Turn springs from improvisational acting. In improv, when your partner says or does something, then you should say or do something in response. Hopefully you say something that makes sense. If you say something entertaining, that’s a bonus. Sometimes it’s neat to respond with something called a Left Turn, which is a response that no one expected, but that makes sense to everyone the moment you say it. It can’t just be some wild, random, turnips-doing-algebra-and-barking-like-dogs thing. That just confuses everyone and makes the audience hate you and all your seed unto the last generation. It has to make sense—unlike mice firing bazookas.

I’ve found that you can’t force a Left Turn to appear. That’s like forcing an ice cream truck to come down your block. But you can do things to encourage a Left Turn, just like you can hire pretty girls to stand at the curb waving dollars and crying out for Eskimo Pies. To cultivate a Left Turn in improv, when it’s your turn you can follow a chain of ideas until you get to an interesting response. Each idea builds on the one before it, so it gets further from the obvious response but still has a logical connection back to the beginning.

Here’s an improvised Left Turn in a scene:

Me: “That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen! You killed 20 communist infiltrators all by yourself.”

My Partner: “Yes, but I’m terribly wounded.”

Me: “True, you’re about to die, but before you go I have one thing to say to you.”

My Partner: “What?”

[I start with the idea that this dude is about to die, and then I follow the chain of ideas.]

First idea in my head: “What do you want carved on your head stone?”
Second idea in my head: “Who should take care of your wife and children?”
Third idea in my head: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

Me: “Do you think your wife likes me?”

A Left Turn is born—logical, but not obvious.

So how the heck do my mice Left Turn their enemy into oblivion, alongside Carthage and The Captain and Tennille? I’ll start off with the basic assumption, which is something the mice might say. How about:

“This appalling creature is impaling and disemboweling us all over the place. We should do something.”

And here’s a chain of ideas about what they could do:

—Fall down and play dead.

—Run away to a safer town and forget this blemish of a place.

—Convince the creature it would be more fun to go impale and disembowel someone else, preferably someone far away who was once mean to us.

—Find someone who hates this creature worse than butt fungus and let him eradicate the creature.

—Find someone the creature loves and hold him/her/it hostage until the creature goes away.

—Eat poison and then let the creature eat us. Noble but stupid.

—Lead the creature to the town’s best hunter and taxidermist who conveniently happened to be passing by.

—Lure a giant predator bird down to kill the creature.

—Wait for a god to be lowered on wires and smite the creature with a thunderbolt.

I realize that my chain is pretty long now and that none of these ideas quite sparkle. Maybe I need to work a bit more on how the Left Turn can transition from improvisation to writing. Or maybe I started from the wrong basic assumption. I could instead begin with:

—Kill the creature with a bazooka.

—Kill the creature with a hyper-velocity acorn.

—Tie acorns to our foreheads so the creature chokes to death when it tries to eat a mouse.

I’ll keep working on it.

"A cat in an armored car? Good thing I brought my bazooka."

Photo by Noah7104 at www.roblox.com. (http://www.roblox.com/User.aspx?ID=1032679)

Last night I heard the most hilarious not-funny thing I’ve heard in years. After a long and mainly unsuccessful rehabilitation, my mom is back in her home. That is not the hilarious part, by the way. Unable to stand, my mom and her scooter and her permanently busted leg now wage war against the features of her home that she once loved. Her beloved Keurig coffee maker looms on the kitchen counter like Heartbreak Ridge, repulsing her when she wants to press the control buttons and insert the neat little single-serve coffee buckets. If I thought it would help her storm the thing, I’d buy her a flamethrower. When she wants to get into her nurturing recliner she must hurl herself trembling into its depths from the seat of her scooter. Getting back out of the recliner is like climbing K2. Her lovely bathtub is now a pit of horrors.

She ended up in this nasty little conflict partly because of the way she approached her rehabilitation. For 15 weeks she refused to eat nearly everything placed before her, despite her stated intention of walking out of the damned rehab facility with a healed leg. We almost immediately dismissed the hospital food, instead bringing her food from all across the vast spectrum of things humans can digest without dying. With this bounty brought before her, she occasionally ate a few grapes, part of a chicken strip, a few bites of a baked potato, and several spoonfuls of the broth from a bowl of Wendy’s chili. She had an appetite. Her doctor had prescribed appetite enhancers for her, so she was starving. But she typically reacted to food by making a please-stop-beating-me-with-that-stick face and moaning something like:

“That tastes just horrible.”

“This has too many spices.”

“It’s cold.”

“It isn’t spiced enough.”

“The toast is too thick.”

“I can’t stand to look at it.”

“My mouth just refuses to open.”

Fifteen weeks later and 30 pounds lighter, my mom sported a protein level rarely seen outside dusty third-world countries. It was low enough to kill a Kodiak bear, let alone a finicky 75 year old woman. When her surgeon saw that her leg had healed not at all, he told her to forget rehab and just go home. She and my father packed up her housecoats, her remote control lamp and her chap stick, and they initiated their vicious police action against the house they’ve owned for 51 years. They refuse any direct help from allies in this conflict, although they have accepted logistical support.   Just to be clear, none of that was the hilarious part either.

When I called my mom last night she told me that she’d been eating more. I interpreted that as eating eight grapes for breakfast instead of seven, but I merged into the traffic of her careening recitation of events and asked what “eating more” meant. She told me her breakfast consisted of two boiled eggs, two pieces of bacon and some toast, presumably not too thick. They were cooked how she liked them and tasted delicious, enabling her to eat them.

“My God!” I thought. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Great!” I suppose that was the right thing to say, since any act that might lead to her survival could be called “great.”

In the next breath she brought me up to date on my sister’s health. The flu had been pummeling my sister like an angry kangaroo, and she’d been sweating in misery on her couch for a week. My mom told me that my sister’s husband had cooked a hamburger and brought it to the couch where my sister lay, and she ate it. She hates meat and hardly ever eats any. In fact, she hasn’t eaten any meat for quite some time. My mom relayed that the hamburger cured my sister almost immediately and that her infirmity must have been caused by low protein. She stated this with all the authority of Charlie Sheen discussing hookers.

That wasn’t the hilarious part either.

Then my mom recounted, in detail, the sermon she had preached to my sister about the importance of proper eating. She emphasized the fact that my sister must eat meat, whether she wanted to or not, and that not liking something was no excuse for not eating it.

That was the hilarious part.

After this happy phone call ended, I found my wife in the kitchen. I told her that I’d just heard the most hilarious not-funny thing I’d heard in years, and I explained what had happened. I told her that I now felt some optimism, although my parents still refused any help, which was driving me crazy. I then said something that I thought clever. I said, “Maybe wisdom is taking what you see in others and applying it to yourself.”

My wife agreed that was a clever statement. Then she mentioned that since I wished my parents would accept some help, maybe I could try applying that to myself, as she’d been suggesting to me almost daily for the past two decades. At least I could let someone bring me a can of Diet Coke when I’m watching TV, or bring me some aspirin when I have the flu or hamburger deprivation. Just once in a while.

Well, that conversation didn’t go the way I’d anticipated. But my wife wasn’t wrong, so I smiled, nodded, and surrendered. I had failed to qualify for wise. I might or might not have a chance for clever. Whether I could identify hilarious was debatable. But having the effrontery to compare your mom to Charlie Sheen talking about hookers? Maybe that’s my defining characteristic.

My mom, before The War Against The House, and with both legs intact.

Like everybody else, I wonder why things happen. I mainly wonder why bad things happen. Thousands of years ago some guy saw lightning and thought it was cool. Let’s call him Chuck. Then lightning burned down Chuck’s hut and killed his cows. At that point he became really interested in lightning and why it happened to strike a certain place. He needed to understand what caused it, and he might not sleep well or enjoy his boiled rabbit until he understood.

Sadly, Chuck lived long before guys like Alessandro Volta figured out electricity, so he didn’t have much data to work with. By the way, I might have referenced Ben Franklin, but there’s a reason why we have 9-volt batteries and not 9-franklin batteries. But let’s return to Chuck, our fellow with no hut and a bunch of fried cows. He needed to understand why lightning had hurt him and not his neighbor, who everybody knew cheated on his wife, and who deserved to have his hut burned.

A lean, mean cow-cooking machine. Photo by National Geographic, courtesy of sky-wallpaper.com.

It couldn’t have happened by chance, could it? If it had happened by chance, what could Chuck do to keep it from happening again? Lightning must have singled him out for a reason, and if so maybe he could convince lightning to instead strike his jerk of a neighbor next time. So Chuck came to understand that someone was up there telling lightning where to strike. He realized that a thunder god resided in the sky, with a colorful name like “Teshub,” and maybe a fanciful costume covered in live lizards and chunks of smoking pine resin. And Chuck had better make Teshub happy if he didn’t want his next hut incinerated.

Not many of us believe in Teshub these days. We know that some smart guys have figured out how lightning works, although most of us can’t explain it any more accurately than Chuck could. We understand something called “causality.” When we drop a hammer, it will fall and land on our foot. When we eat an entire roll of cookie dough, we will gain more weight than we thought possible. When we listen to someone, they will walk away thinking that we cared what they had to say. By the way, that works better when we actually do care.

Causality was a pet project of a fellow named David Hume. He was smarter than Chuck, though a lot less fun at parties. Let me try to sum up Hume’s life’s work in one sentence. “We can say that rain causes mud when rain happens before mud, rain is in a position to affect mud, and you always see rain happen before mud happens.” Or put another way, “We can say that putting a mouse in your mother’s purse causes a you to get a spanking, because the mouse activity happens before the spanking, your mother owns the purse and also does the spanking, and you have been spanked each and every time you’ve done this.”

When I wonder why things happen, I am walking around in the land of causality. It’s a tricky place. Even Mr. Hume said that causality has more to do with what’s in our head than what may be happening in the world of mud and mice. For example, I didn’t see a limitless number of mouse/purse outcomes. For all I know, then next time I stuffed a poor mouse in that purse my mother might have given me ice cream. Or she might have thrown me off a cliff, perhaps justifiably. I can’t be sure. But despite the uncertainty, causality is what I have to work with.

As mammals with big frontal lobes, we are compelled to ask why things happen. It’s our nature, and it is one of the hallmarks of man. We ask why we hit every red light on the way to work. We ask why we suffer and die. We ask why we got the blue screen of death three times this morning. And as humans we are compelled to answer those questions and to understand—or else we won’t be able to enjoy our boiled rabbit.

When I’m asking myself why something bad happened, I sometimes hear a person say, “These things happen for a reason.” If he means that something caused these things, I agree with him. Something probably caused the bad thing to happen. The cause might be standing right there, like a dyspeptic Great Dane in an elevator. Or I may not be able to see cause, but I figure that the cause was indeed around there somewhere. I figure that because once we didn’t see what caused lightning but now we do, and that’s also true for thousands of other things we once scratched our heads about. So when that person talks about things happening for a reason, I nod my head and say, “Yep.”

However, sometimes people say that things happen for a reason, and they don’t just mean something caused those things. Instead they really mean a reason, like something made them happen on purpose. That’s when I get into trouble. Are they saying that my engine blew up not just because I didn’t check the oil, but also for some purposeful reason I can’t see? Did someone want my toe to be mashed off because that would make something else happen, or punish me, or make the doctor happy because he can afford new golf clubs? Is someone directing all this activity like Spielberg directing Indiana Jones through a trap-filled cave? Or like Teshub aiming lightning bolts at Chuck’s home? I personally have a hard time buying into this idea. I also advise not letting your toe get mashed off, because it hurts like a son of a bitch.

But just because I can’t buy the idea, that doesn’t mean it’s not a bargain. Lots of people believe that someone pulls all the strings according to a plan. If things seem to happen for no reason, that’s just because we can’t see the reason. Just like the rest of us, these folks need to understand why things happen. If their answers involve someone making things happen for sometimes-murky reasons, I can’t criticize them for it. Maybe they’re right. In any event, it doesn’t hurt me, and they can eat their boiled rabbit in peace.

My father told me once that nobody ever changed somebody else’s mind in an argument about religion. We already have plenty of people getting upset over how others answer the “why” question, and they don’t need me cluttering up their clubhouse.

In the end, for me the idea of an all-knowing, forward-planning string-puller doesn’t answer the “why” question any better than “because I said so” does. In fact, it is exactly like “because I said so,” except it’s about why a hurricane wiped out an island rather than why I can’t get an iguana tattooed on my forehead. I can’t accept it. And while I don’t criticize anyone else for accepting it, for me the answer to the “why” question ends with what causes what. Things do not happen for a reason. Things just happen.

My butt pines for my couch. I write this from what may be the nicest hotel room in which I’ve ever slept, watched HBO and flossed my teeth. Yet my butt and several other parts of my body feel morose. My butt and I have spent hundreds of nights in hotel rooms. We spent $3 to stay in the Rancho Motel, next to the railroad tracks outside Bakersfield. The room had no TV or private toilet, but it included amenities such as making your own bed with a woolen blanket from the Korean War. My butt and I have stayed about everywhere else, hanging out with roaches in a converted 11th floor tenement in San Francisco, stocking the room refrigerator with pie and Diet Coke at the DC Marriott, and wandering around the lobby of the Disney Wilderness Lodge under the protection of the 70-foot-tall totem pole. There’s something charming about a hotel room. At the same time, a hotel room differs from my living room in a way that makes my butt and me want to vandalize the place.

I think my butt and I can help the hotel industry. We can reduce the “this room is so unlike home that I want to carve stick figures into the wretched landscape print over the bed” factor. The key lies in amenities. Hotels have added some great amenities over the years, such as wireless internet and cable TV. They’ve replaced the surplus chairs once used by the KGB to interrogate spies. Hotels now have automatic check out, breakfast buffets with little individually-wrapped muffins, and containers of free water with orange slices floating in it. We don’t deny that hotels have accomplished a lot. But things could be better.

For example, refrigerators are a great addition. But come on, when you open your refrigerator at home, how often is it completely empty? Almost never. When you open a hotel refrigerator, you’re exposed to frigid desolation, like Antarctica without the penguins, who look cute but would happily bite you in the crotch if they could. If hotels really wanted you to feel at home, they would put something in the refrigerators, like Oreos and milk. To enhance the homey feel, they might include some bologna and a crusty bottle of ketchup.

Froot Loops. The ultimate amenity.

Another great amenity would be Valet Plus. When you check into the hotel, you’re probably driving a rental car that would embarrass a Guadalajara taxi driver. Maybe even a Toyota Yaris, which is the worst car I’ve ever driven, so bad that I kept looking on the back of it for the name “Hasbro.” With Valet Plus, the hotel valet would take away your rental car, and when you come back he would have replaced it with a car like the one you own at home. That way you’d know where all of the buttons and dials are, which side of the car the gas cap is on, and how to preset the radio. Or the hotel could provide the option of bringing you a far better car than the one you own, maybe a Mustang convertible or an Eclipse Spyder, which Hertz does rent by the way.

My butt and I don’t know about you, but we have pets at home. In fact, we have a lot of pets, and we miss them when we’re gone. Well, we miss having them lay next to us so we can pet them and hear them make happy grunting sounds. We don’t miss having to feed them and clean up after them, and we don’t miss it when they send a Christmas ornament we’ve had for 30 years shattering to the floor. What’s the solution? We suggest that every hotel have a petting zoo. That way you can pet some rabbits and goats and alpacas as much as you want, and then leave them in the lobby when you’re ready to return to your room and watch Big Bang Theory. You should have the option of bringing a pot bellied pig back to the room with you so it can sleep curled up against your head, if you like that sort of thing.

Hotels have added a number of handy, personal amenities such as coffee makers, blow dryers, and sewing kits. My butt and I have noticed one addition that puzzles us. When we open the closet door in a hotel room, we often find an ironing board hanging on the back of the door. We don’t want to demean unwrinkled clothing, but how often do you go to a hotel and really, really need to iron? Ironing boards just take up space that could be used for something more useful. Just imagine that you open that closet door to put away your jacket and instead find a complimentary ninja hanging from the back of the door. That is a useful amenity. We admit that we don’t have a ninja at home, and you may not either, but the complimentary ninja’s utility is undeniable. You can send him to business meetings to intimidate your customers and coworkers, leaving you free to go to the movies. He can infiltrate a nice restaurant and steal the most expensive meal for you, bringing it back so you can eat it in the peace of your room’s almost-comfortable armchair. And he can fade into the shadows outside your room at night to assassinate any unruly children shrieking down the hallway. We would go out of our way to make reservations at any hotel providing a complimentary ninja.

Finally, we’ll address the most annoying of all hotel room issues, since it strikes at the soul of what it means to have your own domicile. We refer to undocumented television channel arrangements. We have never stayed in a hotel room in which we could figure out how to switch the TV to a channel we wanted to watch. Many hotels provide no guidance on this at all. Others do provide a list of TV channels on a laminated card, or maybe in a fake leather hotel directory folder, but we have yet to find such a guide that was accurate. For Americans, nothing says “you’re not the master of your own existence” like the inability to find the channel you want to watch. Despite all of the hotel’s efforts to make you feel welcome, this is like a spiked collar they slap on you to remind you that you’re in their home, not yours.

To address this problem, we suggest the Television Caddy. The caddy would stand or crouch just over your right shoulder while you’re watching TV, providing you advice much like a golf caddy. You might say, “I want to watch ski jumping on ESPN2. This laminated piece of paper says that’s channel 41. What do you think?”

The caddy would squint at the TV, glance at the paper, and test the wind coming out of the cheap air conditioning unit under the window. “I think if you try a 41 then you may end up on the Oxygen Channel. Under these conditions I’d go with a 68.”

With the caddy’s help you’d safely hit ESPN2 on channel 68, which wouldn’t be showing ski jumping after all but would instead be covering the World Lumberjack Championship, which is about as good. Now you would feel that life is back under your control.

Do you hear us, hotel industry? You’ve done great work, but you have a long way to go to make us really happy. The first hotels to adopt these amenities, or others such as  a Best Buy on every floor and urchins in the courtyard at whom you can hurl pennies, will dominate the market. And now, my butt and I will head downstairs to the spa for our Swedish massage and our anointing with hot oils and myrrh.