The idiot-proofing of America

November 11, 2009

As I was preparing a breakfast of fried eggs and English Muffins this morning, I went to the refrigerator for a new stick of butter. I looked at the shiny paperboard carton with an attractive lithograph and company logo surrounded by little blocks of information presented in 2 point type. Someday, it occurred to me, I’ll actually have to read all of that stuff.

Seems to me that butter should probably be about the same as it was almost ten thousand years ago. Only the wrapping has changed. I mused that my grandmother used to buy the stuff in a wooden box or a tin pail, and her mother probably made it herself at home after milking the cow.

I flipped the carton on end and picked at the sealed flap, noticing the tiny words, arrows, and illustrations printed thereon. My curiosity outranking my need for butter at that moment, I read it. Right there in front of me were detailed instructions on how to lift the flap! Once I accomplished that act of genius, I came to the inner flap, and sure enough, there were detailed instructions on how to lift that flap as well in order to access the inner mysteries of the container wherein I hoped to find four sticks of butter, with or without a map.

Lo and behold, there they were, neatly wrapped in their little blankets of waxed paper as always, except for all of the printing and illustrations on the wrappers explaining how to, you guessed it, open the wrappers. Good heavens, how did we ever manage to put a man on the moon?

Back around the time when the concept of selling refrigerators to Eskimos was deemed the epitome of guile, a clever man observed that “there’s a sucker born every day”. Maybe that’s what happened, then. We had a population explosion and my generation was about the last one allowed to play with cast steel toys with sharp edges, wooden toys with little wheels and doo-dads that were a cinch to swallow, if one were inclined to do such a thing, or to play in the street barefoot.

If one was to believe the “smart money” today, Attila the Hun himself would have recoiled in abject terror had he been subjected to my naked early years. Even race car drivers hadn’t heard of seat belts yet in those days, and I had to learn to wheel-walk a one-lunger Triumph motorcycle with nothing on my head but a greasy ducktail.

Plastic bags made great toys, and anyone old enough to read generally had enough sense not to put one over his head. Those who weren’t old enough to read, or didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain in general, were tended to by a watchful adult instead of being plopped in front of some electronic device while Mom trotted off to get her nails done, secure in the knowledge that if anything unpleasant happened there would probably be a dozen or so entities subject to litigation and blame.

In any event, despite the ranting of an army of neo-circus barkers turned lawyers, and the anal-retentive neuroses of OSHA, we, their predecessors, had pretty good childhoods and accumulated few life-altering scars while engaging in such risky personal adventures as opening cartons of butter.

Over the six-plus decades of my oft-errant life, I’ve watched the Idiot-Proofing of America with no small amount of amusement and incredulity. I’m convinced that that the increased life expectancy of 2008 is pure serendipity and that the only real and observable outcome of the Idiot-Proofing of America has been to create more idiots.

All of that notwithstanding, I enjoyed a tasty breakfast this morning. I buy my eggs with the skid-marks and feathers still on board, and if I’m not in the mood to read anything but the morning paper while I eat, I know of a couple of places where I can drop my money in a rusty coffee can and pick my own butter out of a real “ice” box within spittin’ distance of an honest to goodness fly-infested manure pile. My doctor would be horrified. He wants me to worry about my cholesterol, probably so he won’t have to worry about putting his kids through college.

At sixty five, my kids are all set education-wise, and even though they might be cute, I’m not particularly concerned about the offspring of my physician. As a matter of fact, for some crazy reason the only things I seem to get paranoid about today are the performance of my bowels and what to do if I should have an erection lasting more than four hours…..


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