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 have failed my greatest tests of character. I admit that doesn’t look good on a t–shirt. I suppose I could try to equivocate, or even slip out of this admission entirely. I might say that a test of character is “an instance in which one is faced with a situation that challenges the social norms of one’s culture.” That half-assed sociology student’s definition would enable me to meet any challenge with buckets of character to spare. But hell, I can barely understand what it says. My people didn’t define a test of character that way. For them it was, “you want to do a thing you know ain’t right.”

Like everyone, I’ve demonstrated my tarnished character many times in my life, maybe two or three times a day since I turned three years old. Mostly the small things defeat me. Watching Popeye smack the fool out of Bluto while I should have been cleaning my room. Drinking beer at school when someone was around to take my picture as evidence. Blowing off Biology because English was more fun. By the way, if they don’t want that to happen then they shouldn’t make you collect bugs for Biology while they let you make movies for English. These were small tests, but I’ve failed many thousands of them, and they add up. They add up to exactly not a damn thing, in my opinion. They’re just the price of having bigger frontal lobes than the other primates. That’s right, I jumped off the house to impress a girl because my lobes are big.

But bigger challenges have often annihilated me. And I don’t remember anyone walking behind me dangling a carrot in front of my face. I embraced character corrosion all on my own. For example, my heart told me that dropping out of college was the wrong move. My brain, gut, gall bladder, and pancreas did too. I didn’t listen or even care. Later on, I knew with mathematical certainty that when I walked into the totally nude bar with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red in my right hand and a bottle of Gatorade in my left, it would result in me starting a fight and waking up the next morning in a pool of vomit and blood. Did it anyway. I haven’t always done the most awful thing possible. I have good days. But I have faced decisions about cruel behavior, illicit substances, illegal activities, procrastination, prevarication, and degradation of the temple that is my body. I made the wrong choice pretty often. And I admit that these decisions do mean something to me when I take my character out to examine it at night.

But my most devastating character tests have involved women. I’ve chosen well at times, emphatically so in the case of my current wife. But generally, getting involved with a woman has turned my character into a pillar of salt. I’ve fallen for women who reviled me, women who ignored me, and women who thought they liked me okay until our first date. I always knew I was making the wrong choice, but I didn’t possess the character to say no. I chased women whose boyfriends rightly threatened to kill me, and I caught women only to break their hearts. I was stupid enough to fall for my best friend’s wife, and reckless enough to marry the human least suitable on the entire planet to be my spouse. Note that I included both genders in that statement to give you an idea of the real scope of my blunder. These were my greatest tests, and unfortunately I’m a sucker for women, a sucker for love, and a sucker for bad choices about both.

Thank God for my current wife. Without her I’d probably fall into every bottomless crevasse of character subversion that I walk past.

They say that suffering builds character. Well, I don’t remember a single time that shrieking agony, even the emotional kind, built my character. Not a bit, not even at the atomic level. It just pissed me off. Occasionally it made me sad, but mostly I wanted to pry off someone’s testicles, yank out their eyes, and nail the testicles into the empty sockets. I guess that’s just me. If suffering builds character, why do so many people lead wretched lives, yet you wouldn’t trust them to scrub bird shit off a statue of Yogi Bear?

I’m going to assume that at some points in my life I did build a little character. I can resist accepting a gritty crust of bread as payment to dry gulch an orphan for her lunch money and her Hello Kitty backpack. I do have a modest capacity for doing the right thing. How did I build this smidge of character? It seems like on the few occasions that my character stretched, it filled me with frustration. Regret and even nausea often followed. These disturbing symptoms appeared when I decided to do a right thing and then stick with that decision throughout the complete denial of the thing I’d rather be doing. I would think, “Ah this is what it’s like to do the right thing. I am building character, and it will make it easier to feel even more frustrated and shitty the next time I do the right thing. Goody—I’ll go ahead and start getting extra frustrated now to be sure I don’t miss it next time around.”

I guess building character’s like building a muscle. If I work to make the right decisions now, I get better at making them next time, no matter how big a frustrated dope I feel like. I can now hear the generations of my people more clearly, saying to me, “Show some character, boy. To hell with that suffering shit. Just do what you ought to, get a big dose of frustration and nausea, and learn to like it.”