Crusty Old Men 
by Edgar J. Steele

April 24, 2005

"Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so."
  --- Bertrand Russell

"The only thing you take with you when you're gone is what you leave behind."
  --- John Allston

(mp3 audio file (1.7 mb, 15 min):  (streaming mp3)

I've heard it said that experience is a wonderful thing because it enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.  Sometimes.  If you're lucky.  Experience also allows you to recognize the mistakes of others.  Again, sometimes.

Age makes some of us think that experience is valuable as a way of learning.  Age invests some of us, time and again, with the notion that experience, even if we have not personally had any that is relevant, is best shared with those around us.  Especially those who are younger.  Generally, those youngsters see us for what we are:  crusty old men. 

Too often, youngsters dismiss crusty old men out of hand.  I know I did.  When younger, I hated being around old people, especially difficult old people - cantankerous, iconoclastic, irascible, obstreperous and/or curmudgeonly.  Knowing they were right, even when they were wrong.  In a word, crusty.  Now that I am becoming one, I see that they are not so bad.  If only I had known what an invaluable resource I was overlooking.  What a concept.  Crusty old men.

Why focus just on crusty old men?  (And women, incidentally.  I use the term in its historically-correct, all-encompassing sense.  Only since the birth of feminism has the word "man" come to mean just males.)  Instead of crusty old men, after all, there are so many truly nice, grandfatherly types around who also have experience.  Now that I verge upon old age, I see them for the sycophants that they are - willing to be anything to gain favor with others, particularly youngsters.  Willing to say or not say anything.  Not me, though. 

The problem is that crustiness is a strong indicator that experience has resulted in awareness, an earmark of learning.  More on this in a moment.

Always, I have been willing to risk relationships to make a point.  Mind you, it has cost me innumerable relationships.  But, it has gained me lots of others, as well.  Better ones, by far - drenched in honesty.  When younger, I was known to some as being a difficult person.  That all ended when I became a lawyer.  Then I had an excuse, goes my long-standing joke.  Now I see myself as becoming merely crusty.

Every morning, I rise up and once again choose to be married to my wife of twenty years - after all, difficult and crusty as I am, I could easily leave any time I wanted.  Many do.  And she chooses me all over again, as well.  Regularly, I risk our relationship for the sake of honesty, which is why it endures, I am convinced.  I looked at her this morning and saw that same, lovely young girl smile that same, lovely smile, then felt my pulse quicken, just as it has thousands of times before.  Will I feel that way tomorrow?  Dunno.  Stay tuned.  Probably, though.  Think of all the really nice people you know who cannot honestly talk this way about their spouses.  Nice is nice, but it is overrated.  I attribute my marital success to crustiness.

Heaven knows I risk my relationships with my children each and every day.  That's my job.  In a sense, they have both a blessing and a curse in having been born to me at a time when some of my contemporaries were having grandchildren.  They get to be teenagers just as I lapse into full-blown crustiness.  Those who have or have had teenagers will see my kids' predicament as simply fair play, however.  The mixed blessing comes in my children getting the benefit of my experience.  Every day.  Whether they want it or not.

Having said all that, then clearly it is no problem for me to risk my relationship with you in pursuit of honesty.  Either it survives or it doesn't.  If it does, then both of us will be the better for it.  If it doesn't, then I will blame you.  I can get away with it.  After all, I'm getting crusty, don't forget.

Ok, ok...I'm 60.  Well, I'll be 60 in 3 months.  You see, I adopt the age to which I am closest at any given time.  That way, when I tell someone how old I am, at first I can revel in the secret knowledge that I'm really not that old.  Later, it has become so automatic that I barely notice when my birthday actually whizzes by.  Makes it much easier to endure those birthdays with the zeroes in them, let me tell you.

With age comes impatience born of the knowledge that time is growing short.  That is a lot of what makes a man crusty, I think.  It also makes some men buy red Corvettes and run off with their secretaries, but that is another discussion altogether.

Crustiness is caution cast aside.  What do I have to lose at this point?  Nobody listens to me anyway, so I'll say this any way I please.  I've always longed to do this and, if I don't do it now, I surely never will.

But, and this is key, there is another, far more important, aspect to crustiness:  vision born of experience. 

Like the fact that welfare does not work, but instead creates the very problem it wrongheadedly is designed to solve.  A truth that is at once counter intuitive, hard hearted and difficult to prove, yet compelling, based upon the evidence at hand.

With age comes a realization of just how important is self reliance, individualism, responsibility and, most important by far, accountability.  Accountability, as in being responsible for one's own actions and the entirety of one's own existence, right up to where it verges on that of others.  Being accountable for some others (one's own children, for example) but not all others (other people's children, for another example).  It takes a village to raise a welfare mother.  Pretty crusty, eh?

Crustiness is seeing the full breadth of the business cycle so that neither 2% nor 25% interest rates are surprising.  Knowing that the Dow, inevitably, will fall to a very small fraction of its current value, just as it regularly does.  Knowing that paper money is a fleeting thing with no inherent value because it is the mechanism by which we the people primarily are fleeced.  Really getting that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Crustiness is experiencing both freedom and tyranny in a single lifetime so that one can know tyranny when it arrives in one's own country (it has arrived in America, by the way).

It is realizing that real tolerance means honoring all points of view, yet requiring none.

Crustiness is knowing that sending money in response to those heart-rending pitches for African children actually goes into the pockets of hucksters.  Knowing that telephone calls for donations to the police and firefighters are made from boiler rooms in the Bronx and that, at best, 3% of any money raised actually finds its way to a charity.  Merely knowing the way things work does not make one cynical, though crusty old men personify cynicism.

Yet, often you will see a crusty old man rise to offer his seat on a bus to a complete stranger, though younger than he, simply because she is female.

As I look around, I see a lot of my contemporaries who always have been nut jobs becoming crusty, too.  In fact, it seems to go with the territory in their case.  Sort of a reaction to their ongoing perception of the world, I suppose. 

How can I be sure that I am not falling victim to the same sort of wacko crustiness?  I can't, but my family keeps me pretty well grounded, so I think not.  On the other hand, I am reminded of the immortal Ogden Nash couplet:  "See the happy moron - he doesn't give a damn.  I wish I was a moron - my God, perhaps I am!"  That kind of thinking helps keep me grounded, as well. 

And then, of course, there is the occasional maven willing to tell me how egotistical, arrogant and self absorbed I am.  I attribute that to my crustiness, of course, and bemoan the fact of there being so many crusty wackos who confuse some people into thinking me possessed of negative characteristics.  Kind of like how 99% of the lawyers give the rest of us a bad name, yet another long-standing lawyer joke I like to tell - only, once again, it isn't really a joke and it surely isn't funny.

In Western culture, the eternally young and beautiful image enshrined by every sort of media inculcates distrust of the old, far beyond that which I experienced when I was younger (or so it seems).  Some of the old deserve it.  Even some of the crusty old men (the crusty wackos, for example).  But, not everybody.  Simple logic demands that some of us crusty old men must have something worthwhile to offer. 

The challenge for our youth is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Other cultures often know better, which is why their youngsters are about to eat our multicultural, diverse, politically-correct, free-trade lunch.

If we Crusties ran America, she wouldn't be in the mess you see today, let alone the hideous catastrophe that awaits us, just around the corner.  Crusty old men wouldn't be sending our youngsters off to die for the greater glory of oil, or nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, or to pursue Saddam or Osama, or whatever the true reason is that our children are being crippled and killed in ever-increasing numbers in the Middle East (can you say Israel, boys and girls?).  Crusty old men wouldn't be printing more money than our nation's productivity allows. 

Crusty old men founded America.  You think not?  Read the writings of any of them:  Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Madison, Paine...any of them.  They sound just like I do.  Crusty.

It is well worth the effort to find and listen to the crustiest among us old men.  Stand on our shoulders if you really want the long view.  Or, you can simply do as I did and learn much of what you will know the hard way - up close and personal.  Then, when the time comes, you will be able to pass along the same advice I just have given you.  Or, you can take it to heart and make of yourself someone capable of passing on something far more advanced to those who come after you.  Your choice.

Though I have been witness to endless technological and social change in my time, one thing remains a constant:  character counts!  Make something of yours.  Ask an older person to lunch and talk with them.  You may well be surprised at what you learn...provided you are willing to risk your relationship with them, of course.  Honestly now, when was the last time you really talked with your parents?

New America.  An idea whose time has come.


Copyright 2005, Edgar J. Steele

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