Live and Learn

Posted on October 21, 2012


When I was in kindergarten, I found out that you could mix red and yellow to make orange. It was a magical moment for me, as if the universe had just pulled back the curtain and let me in on a prime example of life’s most vital secrets. But the feeling didn’t last. I soon realized that this knowledge had no application in the real world. I could open any box of crayons – even the basic pack of eight – and there would be an orange one, wrapped in a paper sleeve, its top sharpened to a smooth and chiseled perfection. It would be standing there among its fellow crayons, all straight and pointy and lined up like a rainbow of small Atlas rockets. There was no need, I decided, to mix red and yellow. In fact, doing so would leave at least one of the crayons with a smudge from the other, producing unwanted orange blemishes on the next few lemons, raincoats, apples, and fire trucks I attempted to color.

On the day I got my first box of 64 crayons, the color-mixing idea was finished for good. That’s when I learned that there’s a difference between blue-green and green-blue, and that there was something called raw sienna, although to this day I’m not sure what that is. The box even included flesh, a chalky shade of beige that made the people in my coloring books appear as though they were suffering from some untreatable infection. The flesh crayon was later renamed peach, which sounded better but still caused everyone to look like they should go to the hospital.

That experience taught me an important lesson: Something could possess the luxury of truth, and yet be a waste of time. I also discovered that things aren’t always what they seem. When my mother told me those beautifully-wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree at the bank were just empty boxes, I was certain she was lying, or misinformed. Even now, whenever I visit my local branch in December and see the presents under the tree in the lobby, I have to remind myself not to tear them open. But that’s an anomaly, a vestige of childhood innocence that lingers, I think because I never saw actual proof that the boxes weren’t filled with toys. For the most part, I’ve wised up.

I’m not saying I learned the lessons right away. First I had to waste four to six weeks of my life waiting for X-Ray Glasses to arrive in the mail, and this after paying the hefty $1.85 price tag and an additional twenty-five cents for postage. When they did finally arrive, the glasses turned out to be defective, and failed to help me see through walls, skin, clothing, or anything else. Weeks later, I purchased from the same company their Police Style Handcuffs, which were made of plastic and couldn’t have restrained King Tut’s mummy for more than fifteen seconds. Then there was the two-sided nickel, disappearing ink, and a gadget you could employ when you wanted to throw your voice. I had never thought about throwing my voice before, but once I was aware of the possibility, it seemed like an indispensable skill. The last thing I bought was the Secret Book Safe, which was designed to thwart burglars from finding your valuables. Of course, by that time I didn’t have any money left to hide, and the only thing I owned that had any value was my box of half-peeled and broken crayons with the built-in sharpener in the back. To my credit, I lived through the 1970s without ever buying a pet rock, a mood ring, or a Nehru jacket.

Taking it a step further, I learned to spot the dubious nature of conventional wisdom – those widely-accepted beliefs that are based on shaky facts and hand-me-down thinking. Like that button you see at busy downtown intersections. Its alleged purpose is to stop traffic and give pedestrians the WALK signal, which allows them to cross the street safely. But that button isn’t connected to anything, and is just there to give you something to do while you’re waiting for the light to change. The people in those cars are ambassadors and movie stars, and some of them are commercial pilots on their way to the airport, and there’s no way they’re going to sit there burning gasoline at four dollars a gallon just so you can go to the dollar store to get that 89-piece set of needle-nose pliers; they’re just not.

Here’s another thing I don’t fall for anymore: The jewelry scam. Specifically, diamonds. According to science, diamonds are millions of years old, the result of intense heat and pressure that builds up far below the Earth’s surface. Because of the conditions required to form them, quality diamonds are rare, and therefore worth a lot. Have you ever been to the mall? I have, and I notice that every mall has four or five jewelry stores. Each of those stores has a bucketful of diamonds of all shapes and sizes. If I leave the mall and drive to the next town, I find more jewelry stores, each with locked glass cases overflowing with diamonds. I suspect you live within a few miles of the very same kind of retail establishment. We can also order diamonds from catalogs, websites, and professional salesmen starring in late-night infomercials.

Diamonds aren’t rare. You know what’s rare? A car with Alaska license plates. I think I’ve seen three in my life. A 1909 Honus Wagner rookie baseball card; I’ve never seen one, and likely never will. When was the last time you saw a shoe horn, a pipe cleaner, a rectal thermometer? I know they exist, probably in every home, but they seem to be hidden away, along with the diamonds and other so-called valuables. I don’t own any of those items. I have nothing made of pure gold, either, although I’m told you can make gold by mixing yellow and orange, and then adding a little silver. Then again, why would I bother? My newest box of crayons has more than a hundred different colors. I’m sure gold is in there somewhere, along with blue-green, green-blue, peach, and raw sienna.

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Most of the original artwork for the cartoons in this post was done by Ron Leishman.

Thanks to my new writing group friends — Tom, Karen, Phil, Pam, and Grace — for their feedback, and for making me feel welcome.