When Dumb Becomes Useful

November 1, 2011
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There is a longstanding phrase that sums up the  impulsivity of youth:

Young and stupid.

It was likely suggested by some parent dazed by their child’s disregard for personal safety and lack of good judgment in the face of the obvious. I’m not saying that those in the older ranks can’t come up with disturbingly inane ideas, I’m just saying that it comes more gracefully to the younger generation and at that age their miscalculations can be dismissed with the above phrase and nobody gets hurt…unless they actually get hurt.

What got me thinking about this was that recently my 18 year old nephew asked me what I thought of the idea  of he and some buddies buying a canoe kit, building the thing and setting sail for their local university where a sea of equally dopey freshmen would be hanging out. Now when he asked me I immediately played the ‘adult’ card and asked him what his mother had thought of the idea. Of course, she thought it was a lousy idea and I chimed in with the “Listen to your mother, she has your best interests at heart”.

Bridge over the ravines

Crossing the ravine bridge the hard way

Then I went on to explain a few things that he might never have considered; logistical things like after you and your buddies have anted up for the canoe, who keeps the it? Where do you store it? Will you ever use it again? John Denver built his own airplane and look what happened to him? I felt that I had him fairly talked out of the whole canoe thing.

Then, inexplicably, I went on to tell him a story of a time in my second year in college when a friend and I bought a two-person blow up raft from army surplus, dropped a case of canned beer in the middle of it and set sail down the large river that led to our school. From where we started it was going to cover many miles and would be slow because of those crappy little oars that aren’t much more efficient than paddling with your hands. Anyway, to condense a story that took nearly all day to complete, we ended up discovering where local companies dump their waste, received a sunburn the virtual equal to running into a burning building, found out that there are more mosquito nests than you can count on the banks of the river, beer gets warm quickly and, finally, there are no bathroom facilities on a raft that you can’t stand up in.

In the end, I tacked on a ‘by the way’ that identified my mother as the one who drove us to the park where we put the raft in the water. I knew I was shitcanning my entire ‘good judgment’ argument but I couldn’t stop myself and I think I know why. Somewhere in the recesses of my addled mind lie the thought that young people do ridiculous things because there is, when you’re in the process of expanding the world beyond your parents backyard, a need to test just how far you can go with an idea and still talk about it the next day.

In the late teens everything is still very new and when my friend and I hopped in the raft that day we ended up crossing several things off the list of  ‘never going to do that again’. Fortunately, we didn’t drown, we weren’t swallowed up by toxic waste and we didn’t end up in a burn ward. But what did we learn? Well, principally, that staring at somebody for hours on end makes you, at the end of this torturous period, never want to see them again so be prudent with your time spent with others.

After I hung up with my nephew I started to think back on the litany of dumb moves I’d made when I was younger so here, for your consideration, is a sampling of acts a sane person would never take part in:

1) In my mid-teens I had a homemade go-cart that I would race around our backyard where there was a sharp turn right before a sapling. Nearly every time I took that turn I cut it too sharply (the ruts were there to prove it), dumping the cart over sideways and narrowly escaping a crushed skull by a large metal railing that missed my head by about 2 inches. Proving that I’d learned nothing, I continued to flirt with the same danger repeatedly. Fortunately, the worst damage done was to a defenseless barbecue.

2) Around the time of a particular July 4th I had built an elaborate structure in our backyard out of two by fours and sheet plastic. Then I figured we could camp out back there even in the rain. So when the 4th rolled around I thought it would be a cool idea to seal ourselves in and light sparklers since it was fairly roomy and would light up the place. Fire, especially 2,000 degree flaming magnesium, needs a lot of oxygen but, amazingly, it took me awhile to figure out why me and my buddy had monstrous headaches and sudden nausea.

3) In college, to get from one side of the campus to the other, they had built a 230 foot steel bridge that crossed over a very deep ravine. It was 70 feet to the bottom of the ravine so, naturally, I decided that it would be a great idea to traverse the bridge…underneath the concrete walkway moving from girder to girder just to taunt gravity.

4) When I was in my mid-30′s and living in New York City, on the way back into the city via the New Jersey Turnpike, I saw a plodding turtle crossing the deadly highway and decided that I needed to stop and rescue the thing. Just stopping on the turnpike was insane but navigating the multiple lanes of constant traffic like some daring real-life game of Frogger was truly foolhardy. I eventually snagged the turtle and tossed it into the ditch out of harms way where it probably crawled up the other side and got crushed by the traffic headed the other way. But what was I going to do, give him cab fare home?

In all of these cases I lived to dumb another day and the log of mildly amusing stories can be inserted into various social situations. But, for youth, there’s a commitment to diving head first into life’s dangers and to ignore basic instinct. It’s not safe but it is instructive and if you’re taking mental notes along the way, and observe even a modicum of self-preservation, you’ll probably survive.

And, in the end, isn’t it the length and breadth of life that gives us a fuller experience? Isn’t throwing caution to the wind, on occasion, a good thing? If you’ve never done anything remotely stupid in your time, you either weren’t trying or you grew up in a monastery. Maybe I should call my nephew up and encourage him to build that canoe after all…

Nah. It’s a dumb idea.

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2 Responses to When Dumb Becomes Useful

  1. Francine on November 7, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Awesome story, BH….but there is one detail in there that went by too fast and could have used some elaboration….”by the way…my mother…drove us to the park where we put the raft in the water”…. I think it is cool that she did that. In doing so, she demonstrated her ability to hold on to you (while you were balancing the nexus between teen hood and adulthood) and allow you to proceed, with what was proven to be, a very silly, an potentially unsafe, idea. My money is on the probable fact that she drove the whole route in an attempt to keep you in her sights (and out of harm’s way)…. Nicely done, Eleanor….

    Now if only she had been there on the turnpike. I cannot believe you are married to me, the most cautious person either one of us knows….(so boring am I….)

  2. Erin Merritt on November 14, 2011 at 7:02 am

    So glad that you’re back! Now I know what I can look forward to with my son. I’ve already built his first bike ramp, and I’m sure I’ll be the mom who drops him off in his raft. One of the main jobs as a parent is to allow your child to be young and stupid. Otherwise, they end up being old and stupid, and that’s just not cool…

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