Are We Safe Yet?

Supid stuntI’ve got a painting stick. Had it for 8 or 9 years now. You know the type, an aluminum telescoping stick that screws on the end of a paint roller to paint ceilings. Painted a ton with it, never had a problem. Anyway, the last time I used it a small label that was glued to it started to peel off. I pulled at it and, lo and behold, the label unraveled into a foot-long strip of instructions and safety warnings. This is a stick we’re talking about. No moving parts. Whatever government office is responsible for citizen safety (O.S.H.A., I believe) went a little overboard here, if you ask me. “Keep out of reach of children”, “Exercise caution near windows or glass objects”, “Don’t use in combination with any other painting extension”, etc., etc. Everything but “Harmful or fatal if swallowed”. Give me a break here. If anyone is fool enough to get injured when using a painting stick they probably are drunk or stupid or just plain clumsy. Why anyone would need a governmental warning on one of these things is beyond me.

Besides, without the stick I’d have to buy a stepladder, and lately every stepladder I’ve seen offered for sale is covered with bright-colored warning stickers advising you which is and which is not an actual step on the stepladder, warnings not to climb up the opposite side of the stepladder (the side with no steps), and a caution not to place your paint can on the shelf designed to hold your paint can. Now, everybody knows that stepladders have always been and will always be accidents waiting to happen, as even a casual fan of slapstick comedy can verify. The basic design has remained unchanged since the Buchanan administration, a folding A-frame just strong enough to hold your average person and just flimsy enough to buckle and fling that average person onto your average floor during every tenth use. So, why all the stickers? Has it saved one accident from happening? Will it ever prevent one of us from misusing a stepladder? I very much doubt it.

Today’s society, however, goes to great lengths to protect us from ourselves, or at least pretend to. Take smoking, for example. Recently the federal government upped the taxes on cigarettes so much that it has become the biggest single beneficiary of cigarette sales. So, in order to get people to stop smoking to save their health, the government positions itself to reap larger and larger dividends from the continuing use of cigarettes. Ooooh-kay. The United States Government, which years ago mandated the dire warning labels printed on the side of each pack of cigarettes sold in this country, now has a bigger financial interest in tobacco sales than Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard combined. This confuses me. It seems that all those years of anti-cigarette rhetoric were a scam, softening up the market to make a killing. They want to make America safe, preaches the government. I want to be safe from the government, thank you very much.

The government seems to want to protect everybody from everything lately, and since it is the government, does a lousy job and confuses everybody in the process. They inspect and label every product from aspirin to yo-yos, making one impossible to open and the other seem like a dangerous machine. When I was a boy, in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the safety of children was not a priority. It was assumed that a successful boyhood included a broken bone or two and several sets of stitches. I know I did my part. Case in point: I grew up in a Brooklyn neighborhood nearly surrounded by water and containing much swampland. Swamps breed mosquitoes and so to alleviate that problem the government sent giant bug-spray trucks to spray every inch of the neighborhood with thick, oily white clouds of mosquito killer. We kids loved it, dozens of us trailing behind the truck disappearing into to sweet-smelling clouds, playing tag in the bug-spray. The lumpy old guys on the truck encouraged us and we had a lot of laughs together. We’d then watch the gas settle knee-high into the swamps, monster-movie style, so we’d crawl on our bellies through the marsh, then suddenly jump up, trailing wisps of mist like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The truly odd thing about this odd game that went on several times a week all summer long was that nobody’s parents objected. In those days they trusted the government not to poison their children. Go figure.

Try that today and you’d have protests, criminal prosecution and law suits within days, and probably rightfully so. Parents back then also trusted corporations to produce safe toys for their youngsters. Again, go figure. I remember plenty of my toys having sharp edges and coming apart quite easily. My brother and I had a shooting-gallery game where you knocked down metal silhouettes of animals with a pistol BB gun. Much to the dismay of the local cats and squirrels we pried that BB gun loose in no time at all. The local candy store sold extra BB’s for a dime, like 500 of them. The roller skates we used tore up your shoes and came flying off without warning, which could be rather disconcerting if you had a little speed up. Our bicycles were huge, hard to steer and hard to stop. Playgrounds had no rubber mats anywhere. Nobody wore safety helmets for anything except when coming to bat in baseball games, and then only in official Little League games. In choose-up games, we didn’t even have protective gear for the catcher, so I wisely learned to become an excellent infielder so no one would ask me to crouch behind the plate. So I suppose some regulation of children’s products was inevitable and proper. Just don’t label yo-yos. Any child whose life is in danger from a yo-yo is probably a prime candidate for the thinning of the herd, so to speak.

Many of the things we did and took for granted are now outlawed or generally condemned. Even the way my family ate, drinking lots of milk and eating plenty of red meat, is today considered a form of abuse. Of course no one ever heard of cholesterol then, and I still suspect it’s some sort of fraud perpetrated by the health food and medical care industries. While the only milk I consume these days is to lighten my many cups of coffee, I still love a good rare steak and feel ever so much better for having eaten it. I catch a bit of grief over my eating habits from the tofu crowd, but I get over it swiftly. I know plenty of vegetarians, and not only are they unhealthy looking, it seems that they all eat all day long, chewing their cud from baggies full of unidentified dried agricultural products they store by the dozens in their backpacks (And what’s up with those stupid backpacks? Who’s idea was that?). Don’t they know why lions sleep a lot of the time? Because they can. They’ve had their meat and so they can rest. Antelopes are never finished grazing. It’s all they do every day. The only way a zebra knows when he’s done eating is when a lion eats him. He’s done then. Here’s how it works on God’s green ball; prey has eyes on the sides of their heads, predators, meat-eaters that is, have eyes front and center. Check the mirror. That’s right, humans are predators. Top o’ the food chain to ya, matey.

And check the bill of rights while you’re at it. Animals don’t have any. Sorry, animal activists (I wonder why it is that only humans join these groups. Must be all the petty squabbling and infighting among the various animal factions.). I don’t own a fur coat but they look warm as toast and damned stylish. Before anyone sprays red paint on someone else’s property, let them ask themselves if they think the goose that provided the down for their triple-down parkas survived the plucking. Or the cow who’s hide covers your feet and holds your pants up still roams free. While I don’t believe in abusing or killing any animal needlessly, I have no objection to testing medical procedures on them. Among those who vehemently object to medical experimentation on animals I see very few of them volunteering to replace those animals in the labs and none of them turning down the byproduct medicines of this research when their lives or the lives of their loved ones are in danger. And don’t ask me to love your damned dog if I don’t want to. Love him all you want, and your indifferent cat too, but please give me a choice. Don’t ostracize me if I don’t agree that he or she is the most adorable creature I’ve ever seen. I save that title for my niece Suzi, if that’s okay with you.

I know everybody wants to be safe and warm. That’s one of our prime instincts in life, to be safe and warm and to make our families feel likewise. Reality, however, dictates otherwise and life is often cold and dangerous despite all our plans. As they say, stuff happens. Our struggle against stuff happening is probably what defines us as human beings, things like building shelters to overcome inclement weather, storing information outside our bodies for future reference, organizing into societies to enhance our likelihood of survival and generally always trying to improve our chances and our lot in life.

Today, though, I think we have reached the saturation point when it comes to looking after our own heinies, at least in America we have. In this nation we enjoy unprecedented bounty and leisure time. Instead of strolling through our beautiful parks, though, half the people in them are running through them at breakneck speed, too distracted with pain and breathlessness to even notice the roses, never mind stopping to smell them. Some even go home afterwards and lift very heavy weights again and again. Nobody is chasing these runners ands no one is compelling them to heft all those heavy weights. I don’t get it.

Most of them work in offices, where moving fast is no asset at all and the heaviest thing they are required to lift is a stapler. They are, however, “in shape”. For what, I can’t guess. They exercise, they eat things nobody enjoys eating and they maintain temperate habits. Their reward? Same as you and me. They die anyway. They get sick at the same rate as others and get injured a hell of a lot more. So they jog to be able to jog better, lift weights to be able to lift more weights and eat so much non-human food that their bodies have trouble digesting a damned hot dog, and towards what end? To look good?

Not to me they don’t. Exercise addicts, like all other types of addicts, are never satisfied. They are also their own worst critics. They never seem happy with their heart rate, their physique or their cholesterol count even though all of these things might be near-perfect. The result is a lot of intense, sour glares on previously attractive and happy faces, and over time these glares turn into permanent frowns. Try enjoying a cheeseburger in the company of one of these clowns. Or, God forbid, a cigarette and a stiff bourbon. Go jog somewhere, willya? I think Utopia is just over that next tortuous hill.

So here we are, labeling toys and ladders and chasing eternal youth on our treadmills. Are we safe yet? As far as I can tell people still die unexpectedly and the emergency rooms still do a brisk business stitching up ten-year olds. Tornadoes still devastate trailer parks with amazing regularity and people die in car wrecks at an ever-increasing rate, airbags, seat belts and anti-lock brakes notwithstanding. We consume light beer, low-alcohol wine and tasteless gruel by the barrel-full, hoping to look at 48 like we did when we were 18. Dream on.

There’s nothing wrong with looking 48, or 98, if that’s what you are. It took time and living and experience to get there, and more than a few heartaches and hard lessons, so why be ashamed of your age? Everybody knows most teenagers are vacuous, self-conscious and insecure clods (my niece Suzi excepted). Who wants to go there again? Besides, an older person knows that life is a crapshoot that can end any second, so let’s cherish each of those seconds that comprise a life. Or at least they ought to know that. Some of us, like teenagers, assume they will live forever, all evidence to the contrary. Some of us die young, some get gravely ill, others grievously injured, and no amount of safety labels or regimen of exercise can change that.

Those of us who do get to live a few years ought to remember that once in a blue moon, and reflect on the joy and love we were able to extract out of this hard life. We also ought to look around us and take note of the terrible beauty that is our world, and the alternating bounty and danger it offers all of us. Does anyone ever wonder why some of the world’s most beautiful and peaceful gardens are cemeteries? Talk about your double-edged swords. How lucky are we the living, just to be living, loving, struggling, hurting, feeling joy, falling down, getting back up, being alive! To ask on top of that to be always safe and ever youthful is really pushing our luck. So let’s all lift a glass of the good stuff to life, safe or otherwise.

Copyright 2007 R.R. Crespo

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