By Andy Rooney
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ALSO BY ANDY ROONEY
Sincerely, Andy Rooney
Sweet and Sour
Not That You Asked
Word for Word
Pieces of My Mind
And More by Andy Rooney
A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney
The Fortunes of War
(with Bud Hutton)
(with Bud Hutton)
The Story of The Stars and Stripes
(with Bud Hutton)
Almost everyone has in mind writing a book someday. The assumption by so many people that a book is easy to write—if they could only find the time—is irritating to writers who actually write books. Although there is no evidence one is any harder to do than the other, people who wouldn't think of operating on a friend for a brain tumor have no hesitation about trying to write a book. Most of them don't actually want to write anything, they just want to be authors.
I like being a writer but I also like writing. The only time I feel in control of my life is when I am sitting at my typewriter—computer now—typing.
This book was three quarters written when the publisher, Peter Osnos, started pressing me for a title. Coming up with the name for a book has never been one of my strengths. It doesn't seem important because the name of a book doesn't have anything to do with whether a book sells well or not. The title only seems like a good one after it becomes a best-seller. When John Steinbeck submitted his book during the great depression of the thirties, it seems unlikely that the publisher thought The Grapes of Wrath was a title that would become one of the best known of all time.
I tried to think of a name for this book. There is no orderly process to go through thinking of a name for a book. If you're naming a child, there are long lists of names you can look through. It's more difficult naming a book than naming a baby because of the multitude of options. Just to give you some idea, every child's name there ever was is the potential name for a book.
As my brain flipped through possibilities, it seemed as if all the good book names had been taken. I started making notes of titles I'd like to have for this book and in every case, someone had thought of it first: War and Peace, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Catch 22, Cry the Beloved Country, Heart of Darkness, The Joy of Cooking, Gone With the Wind, Never So Young Again, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Brave New World, The Naked and the Dead, Darkness at Noon, Tender Is the Night, The Postman Always Rings Twice, From Here to Eternity. Now those are great names for books. What could we come up with to match one of those in the unlikely event this becomes a classic?
We ended up with Common Nonsense. I cannot remember whose idea it was. Five of us were sitting around a table and it may have been mine. At first glance it's pretty good. It's short and mildly clever being a play on a cliché. As the others around the table agreed that Common Nonsense would be the name of the book, the problem with me giving the name Common Nonsense to a book I wrote, came to me. Why am I saying the material in it is both common and nonsense? I guess the answer is that the book comprises 154 essays about a wide variety of subjects and is a reflection of a flawed brain with a capacity for being interested in more things than it can comprehend. We need fewer mysteries in our lives though and holding up any subject, no matter how trivial or how profound, to the strong light of day, takes the mystery out of it. But we could have called it 154 Essays by Andy Rooney. That would have been a good, straightforward name for the book. Making my name part of the title would have been a trick way of getting it mentioned more prominently than if the book was called 154 Essays and then, down below in smaller type, "By Andy Rooney." Because of the exposure my name gets on the television broadcast 60 Minutes, its prominence in the title is considered to be a sales tool.
Daily Life in America
Further proof of the fact that hope springs eternal is everyone's anticipation that the mail will bring something wonderful even though it almost never does.
DO NOT PUT BOOK IN WATER!
The directions that come with any new appliance or tool must all be written in one place in some remote foreign country because they all sound the same. They also sound as if they've been written by a Japanese who went to college in the United States.
As part of my vacation pleasure, I have just treated myself to a new, heavy duty cordless drill. The book of instructions that came with it clearly states, in big, bold letters:
WARNING! READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE OPERATING THIS TOOL!
I don't do that. From many years experience buying new tools, gadgets and appliances, I have learned that the best thing to do is ignore the instructions, put the manual aside and start trying to use the new toy right away. If you don't try to use it, you can't understand the instructions. If you fool with it for a while and run into some problems using it, then you are better equipped to understand what the instructions are talking about. I realize, of course, that I am never going to get a book of instructions that says:
FOOL WITH YOUR NEW TOOL FIRST, THEN READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!
Neither am I going to read a book of directions that says:
THIS IS NOT A DANGEROUS TOOL!
KIDS WILL ENJOY PLAYING WITH THIS TOOL!
As careful as they want me to be, the instructions I have in front of me now don't give me a lot of confidence in whoever wrote them. I already owned an electric drill but I decided it would be handy if I had one that didn't have to be plugged in so I got this cordless model with a big battery. The fourth paragraph in the manual advises me: DO NOT ABUSE CORD. NEVER USE CORD TO CARRY TOOL. KEEP CORD AWAY FROM HEAT, OIL, SHARP EDGES OR MOVING PARTS.
What's that all about? I bought this piece of equipment because I wanted a drill that doesn't have a cord. It has a battery. Why do they tell me not to abuse the cord when it doesn't have one? They must be saving money by writing a single, all-purpose manual for every tool they make. All they have to say is generalities like KEEP YOUR WORK AREA CLEAN AND WELL LIT.
Whether my work area is clean or not is my business and I'll thank this big corporation to mind its own business. Do I write telling them to keep their factory clean? First thing you know, the manual will be telling me to make my bed in the morning and wash the dishes before watching television.
DO NOT OPERATE TOOL WHEN YOU ARE TIRED.
Oh, fine. If I didn't operate the tool when I'm tired, I'd never operate it because woodworking is my hobby and I only do it when I'm tired of working.
DO NOT IMMERSE IN WATER!
Gosh, it's a lucky thing you told me that. I was just going to fill the bathtub and put my new drill in there to soak.
They ought to have an instruction manual you had to read before they'd allow you to buy a tool.
ATTENTION! DO NOT BUY THIS TOOL UNLESS YOU ARE CERTAIN YOU REALLY WANT IT. MAKE SURE THIS TOOL DOES WHAT YOU WANT IT TO DO BEFORE YOU WASTE A LOT OF MONEY ON SOMETHING YOU DON'T REALLY NEED!
I don't keep warranties, factory guarantees or promises of any kind that come with stuff I buy because I know from experience that if something goes wrong, there's nothing good to do but throw the thing away and buy a new one. I don't keep the box stuff comes in, either, even though they tell me to.
"For service," the booklet says, "contact your nearest factory service center. A list of the factory service centers nearest you appears on page 14."
My nearest factory service center is always someplace like Dayton, Ohio. I suppose I could just drive by someday and drop the tool off in Dayton when it breaks except that Dayton just doesn't happen to be on my way to anyplace I go these days.
THE UNREMOVABLE TOP
The problem and the joke about it is old now. We're used to it. They've beaten us down and we're no longer complaining.
The fact remains, tops of jars and bottles are too hard to take off. Stuff that comes packaged in plastic is too hard to open and get at. Even cardboard boxes have become more impenetrable than a cave in Afghanistan. You shouldn't have to go to the garage to get a hatchet. Big envelopes that say "tear along dotted line" don't tear there at all. How come companies are selling us stuff we can't get at?
Something as simple as the twist-off cap on a bottle of soda is often impossible to remove with the normal strength of your bare hands. I have normal strength in my hands. I work with them in my shop all the time. I'm not embarrassed about my strength. I just can't get the tops off about half the things I try without wrestling with them.
If the average person was on a desert island with boxes full of bottles and jars of food, he or she could starve to death simply because it was impossible to get the tops off anything. Anyone in dire need of medicine in the middle of the night could die trying to get at a pill in a bottle. They aren't just "child-proof," they are "adult-proof."
About half of the cardboard milk or orange juice containers that have arrows saying "push here" or "open here," do not push or open there at all. You have to pry them open with a knife which creates a spout that drips.
Do the manufacturers who sell us these products understand how angry we are? They may not know and I have one possible explanation. It may be that the people who can't get the tops off things feel inadequate. They don't want to admit they can't do it so they don't complain. They assume everyone else can get the tops off and, if they can't, they figure they must be too dumb or too weak. No one wants to admit either of those things so they remain silent.
Men, in particular, don't want to admit they aren't strong enough. My friend Garry Moore had a great sense of humor. He was married to a woman quite a bit bigger than he was and he liked to joke about her size and strength. When he couldn't get the top off something, he enjoyed needling her by handing her the jar and saying "Here, Dear. Would you take this top off for me?"
The other conspiracy I suspect is that the inventors of tops are in cahoots with the people who make a wide variety of gadgets designed to help people remove tops. Inventing new kinds of openers is a cottage industry and many of them don't work. Even if they do, no one should buy something like a jar of jam and then have to buy something else to get the top off.
Some of these gadgets are designed to remove small tops, others large tops and people have to buy a different kind of top remover, depending on their problem and the size of tops they want to remove. Sales of these faulty gadgets are brisk and top designers may be in on the profits.
When it comes to taking the tops off things, I'm a rapper. I give anything that resists a sharp rap with the handle end of a table knife and this sometimes loosens it. I have even taken a jar to the basement and inserted it in my vise while I try to twist the top with a pair of pliers.
Last week I bought a can of something that's supposed to cut through the buildup of baked-on grease in the oven. The top of the can says "TO REMOVE TOP, SQUEEZE, TWIST AND PULL." I squeezed, twisted and pulled with all my might and couldn't get the top off.
In a moment of fury, I had a wild idea. I was going to find out who designed the top, locate his home or office and then take off in my car with a camera crew. Once in the presence of this inventor of tops, I'd whip out the jar or can from my bag, push it at him with the camera rolling and say "Here. You invented this damn thing. Let me see YOU squeeze, twist and pull it off."
All this would be caught on camera. After the inventor failed miserably removing his own top, which I am convinced he would, I would come back with my pictures and sell them as an expose to one of the television shows that exposes things. I would have exclusive pictures of an inventor of tops who couldn't get one of his own tops off.
HOW TO SAVE TIME
It's important to be on the lookout for ways to save time. Here are some tips:
• There is no sense in wasting time being open-minded about everything. Don't waste time listening to arguments in favor of something you thought through years ago and decided against.
• Dressing in the morning, make sure you have both shoes and two socks together in front of the chair so you only have to bend over once to put on all four of them.
• If the printer on your computer is slow and you're thirsty, press PRINT and then go get a drink. By the time you get back, the printing will be finished and you'll no longer be thirsty.
• When opening mail, slit open all the envelopes before reading anything. It takes longer to slit, read, slit, read, slit, read so it's quickest to slit, slit, slit, slit, slit, read, read, read, read. Save time by not reading anything in an envelope that says IMPORTANT!
• Read the newspaper during the commercials on television news.
• Never start a crossword puzzle. If you have that much time to waste, take a nap.
• When boiling water, put the water in two pans or one kettle and one pan. Use the first to boil to start the coffee.
• When driving on a road with no traffic, stay on the inside of every curve, thus straightening out the road thus saving both distance and time.
• While brushing your teeth in the morning, turn on the shower so you don't have to wait for hot water when you're ready to get in.
• If you work on an upper floor in an office building, wait until you have pressed the elevator button before starting to put on your coat. If it takes 15 seconds to button your coat and two minutes for the elevator to come, you're only losing a minute and 45 seconds.
• In the supermarket, don't pick the shortest line. Choose the line in which people have least in their shopping carts.
• This is personal but when I'm writing I save time by not putting apostrophes in words like "isnt," "dont," "arent" and "wouldnt." I estimate that in a 400-word letter, I save as much as five seconds by not putting in about 30 apostrophes.
• Don't put everything back where it belongs every time you use it. Wait until you have a lot of stuff out of place and put it all back where it belongs at one time.
THANKS A LOT FOR NOTHING
Common courtesy has all but disappeared in many public places. We are no longer polite to strangers as a matter of course and that has contributed to the decline of what is called the quality of life in America. It varies in different parts of the Country but nowhere is common courtesy the same as it once was.
It may be simply because, on one hand, we are closer together physically than people used to be but farther apart in mind and spirit. In our cars we don't hesitate to blow our horn at someone in another car because we are remote from that person.
At one time it was quite usual in a crowd for both the jostled party and the jostler to say, "Excuse me." Or perhaps one would say "Excuse me" and, simultaneously, the other would say "Pardon me." It still happens but a much more common response than "Excuse me" to an unintended jostle now is "Why don't you watch where you're going." It's a comment, not a question.
Part of the new rudeness can also be attributed to the fact that we have diminished the importance of good words like "please" and "thank you" by using them indiscriminately and too often when we don't mean them.
We've weakened their meaning by using them always in some superlative form. We seldom say just "Thank you" anymore. We routinely say "Thank you very much." We say it for the most inconsequential things people do for us. When someone holds open a door for the person following, "Thank you" would seem an adequate acknowledgment of so routine a courtesy but we never let it go at that. It's always "Thanks a lot." If someone provides us with change for a dollar, we're apt to say "Thanks a million." Thanks ten, or at the most a hundred, would seem to be thankfulness enough.
Excessive thanks for a simple gesture leaves us nothing in reserve for the important occasions when we want to thank someone for some extraordinary courtesy they have extended us.
I stopped for gas last month in New Jersey where self-service is still illegal. A sign near the pump said "If our attendant fails to say 'Thank you,' the gas is on us."
Is that kind of "thank you" from the heart? I don't think so.
If the attendant didn't say "thank you" and I reported him for it and the owner had to make good on the sign's promise to give me the tank of gas free, the attendant would be fired. When the attendant thanks me, it doesn't come from his gratitude, it comes from his fear of the boss. It's a meaningless "thank you." Too many "thank you's" are these days.
When you get into a taxicab in New York City now, a recorded voice thanks you for using the taxi. Thanks for what? Thanks because we had to go someplace and needed transportation?
My trusty old Underwood typewriter and my Toshiba computer sit here on my desk side by side. The typewriter has the good taste not to say anything to me. It just does its job, silently and well.
My computer, on the other hand, won't shut up. I touch a few keys and the screen reads: PLEASE WAIT
Why "please"? Do I have a choice? Does my computer mean that it's grateful to me for being patient, which I am not? It's meaningless for a machine to ask you anything as if it were being polite. Traditionally, the word "please" has been used as the polite introduction a person uses before making a request that may or may not be fulfilled. The word has even acquired a whole new meaning in the last few years.
When someone starts giving a friend advice he doesn't want, the friend is apt to say "Please!" He doesn't mean "Please give me more." In this sense, the word retains some of its pleading quality but what the person using it means is "Please stop" or "Who needs your advice" or "Please knock it off with the advice."
The word "thanks" is used in the same ironic sense. You might say to me after reading this column, for instance "Thanks for not lecturing me again about courtesy."
THE TRUTH ABOUT LYING
Lies are a part of life. In spite of the admonitions we get beginning in childhood to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the most honest people among us don't live by that standard. It's too hard.
"How does this look?" a woman asks her husband as they're going out the door to a party. If he's lucky, he genuinely likes what it looks like. If he doesn't he's in trouble because either he has to lie or tell the truth and start the whole evening off on the wrong foot. He not only has to lie but has to add to the deceit by lying enthusiastically. "It's okay" is not enough.
It's at least partly the woman's fault for asking the question in the first place. Samuel Johnson put his finger on the problem when he said "Nobody has the right to put another under such a difficulty that he must either hurt the person by telling the truth or hurt himself by telling what is not true."
Truth has a much better reputation than lying. We propagandize ourselves in favor of it every chance we get. All the wise men have endorsed it:
Plato—"Truth will prevail."
H. W. Shaw—"Truth is the edict of God."
Emerson—"Every violation of truth is a stab at the health of human society."
Woodrow Wilson—"The truth always matches, piece by piece, with other parts of the truth."
Mark Twain—"When in doubt, tell the truth."
In spite of the lip service we pay truth, we spend a lot of time deciding when to lie. It's good that it doesn't come easily or naturally to most of us. We spend even more time trying to determine when we're being lied to and when we're being told the truth.
Advertising puts us to the test and gives us a lot of experience in detecting untruths. We know they lie so how good is this product they're telling us about? And what about politicians? Not many people pick up the newspaper and read a story coming out of Washington without wondering whether they're getting the truth or some altered version of it. The elected official who lies or tells less than the whole truth may, like the husband, believe that it's best for everyone if he doesn't go overboard being honest. He can get himself believing it's best for the American people if they do not know the whole truth. He is not lying for personal gain. This is called "Lying Made Easy."
It is even sadder to consider the possibility that many Americans know it and accept it. They don't want the burden of knowing the truth because they are then confronted with solving some of the problems.
Trying to discern whether we've been lied to or not is complicated when we start considering that maybe we were told part of the truth but not all the truth. Part of the truth is like a lie but worse because it's more devious and more difficult to detect.
As a guest on the Larry King show one night I said some things, in answer to his questions, that I would have been better off lying about or avoiding. My superiors at CBS were angry. It was not that the people who objected to what I said necessarily thought I was wrong. They simply thought I shouldn't have said it. It was, they thought, disloyal to be critical of CBS while I still took a salary from the company.
In my own defense, I told a boss of mine that I thought if all the truth were known by everyone about everything, it would be a better world. He scoffed. I think "scoff " is what he did. I know he rejected the idea.
I've thought about it and in retrospect decided he was right. It was a pompous statement that sounds true but probably isn't. Our lives could not survive all the truth about everything. If my boss asks me about it again though, I'm going to lie and repeat it. I like the sound of it. Maybe I can get my name in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations by saying "It would be a better world if everyone in it knew all the truth about everything."
Words are what we use most often to communicate information or a thought but we transfer a lot of ideas from one of us to another using means other than the written or spoken word. For example, we smile.
A smile is a complex way of indicating what we think to someone else because there are so many ways to smile, each with its own meaning. We smile when we are amused. We smile to indicate we are pleased. If we wish to let the person looking at us know that we agree with what he or she said, we smile and nod. We frown to convey the opposite of those ideas but we don't frown as often as we smile.
There are compulsive smilers. Even when they tell a sad story, they smile. I frown more than most people and smile less often although I don't think my reaction to the world is any less positive than people who smile a lot. Smiling just doesn't come naturally to me.
A smile loses its effectiveness if a person smiles too often. You can usually tell when a person is smiling for effect and when he or she is smiling naturally. At its best, smiling is one of the nicest things to do.
Laughing is an extreme smile. It doesn't have as many nuances as smiling has although you can laugh, you can chuckle or guffaw. Laughing can be nasty too. When you "laugh at" someone, you are not being friendly. You're putting the person down.
There are an infinite number of ways to smile. A smirk is a nasty smile. A grin is getting close to a laugh. A smile can even be evil. Mona Lisa's smile is enigmatic. You wouldn't ever say that someone had an enigmatic laugh. When you see someone laughing, it seems as though the eyes are laughing too although eyes don't change. Not even Irish eyes laugh. When the rest of the face, including even the nose, sometimes changes during a laugh, it gives the illusion that the eyes have joined in the fun.
The best smiles come unbidden. That's when you don't decide to smile. Your mouth just widens and, involuntarily, the corners turn up slightly. That's why smiles are so good. The best ones are unplanned.
- On Sale
- Oct 16, 2003
- Page Count
- 366 pages