Read Old Man Scanlon


16 October 2015

My granddaughters exit their high school and cruise toward my car, slim, poised, and even if you must discount a grandfather’s bias, beautiful. But their faces are immobile, oblivious to the crystalline cloudless September afternoon. Ah, I think, they’re running on empty; I’ve seen this before. The stereotype of teenage hunger cannot be dismissed.

I understand the need to avoid showing unseemly enthusiasm among your peers, and I understand the studied saunter of a teenager asserting pedestrian right of way in front of a car. I also know that my girls’ normal pace, at least in the privacy of their own own home, is as often as not a flat-out run, with stairs taken two at a time. They’ve clearly diverted all available calories to locomotion, yet they’re barely making steerage way.

They savagely hurl their backpacks into my car, and heave themselves in after them. They answer my obnoxiously cheery greetings with faint terse monosyllables, and don’t even bother to suppress hypoglycemic hostility in the few words they say to each other.

If I ask them about getting something to eat on the way home, they’ll tell me, “We’re fine.” As a grandfather should, I always defer to their wishes without question, but desperate times, desperate measures. I make the unilateral decision (fortifying myself with Gram’s advice that morning: “Just take them there”) and tell them we’ll be going to Dunkin Donuts. Though I’m reasonably certain I’m in no personal danger, it is best not to take unnecessary chances with hungry teens. I obey the posted speed limits, but waste no time on the way to the carbohydrate dispensary.

Mere proximity to food suffices to raise their spirits. They dictate their sandwich and drink choices to me with reasonably sunny dispositions. Hunter asks me what I’ll get for myself. “Usually a dark roast.” “Hot or iced?” she persists. “Hot.” “You need to mix it up. Get an iced.” A grin erupts that I can’t wipe off. I do not even think of resisting her. So that’s what I order.

Some days after I’ve finished my medium iced dark roast, just cream, Gram and I bring the girls a teaser sample of creamed squash soup and the promise that I’m about to make another batch, out of which I’ll be earmarking a full quart for them. Hunter’s right on it. “Will it be exactly the same?”

I quiz the girls after they’ve had a chance to try the new batch. They noticed it was thinner (because I used fewer apples) but didn’t pick out that I’d added a hint of curry to the original spicing. And I told them that all my soups are subtly different, because the vegetable stock I use depends on the ever-changing stream of vegetable odds and ends that go into it during the preceding couple of weeks. This is the appalling sophistry I commit to convince my innocent granddaughters that I’m not a hopeless creature of habit.

Hunter’s sweet concern that I’m getting into a rut touches me, and her perceptiveness, after a moment’s thought, disconcerts me. I’m old enough to know, in general, whether I will like a new experience, but occasionally I’ll try something I’m less able to predict. The internet makes it trivial for me to check—and confirm—that Nordic death metal is not my cup of tea. It’s obvious that my comfort zone is not expanding at any supersonic rate. I admit that I might lean a little too hard on the easy continuity of the familiar; on the other hand, obsessive novelty-seeking is unattractive in its own right. The sin, of course, lies in the excess, the obsessiveness. Novelty is an exacting mistress, and it’s dicey trying not to go over the line.

Maybe novelty-seeking is an extrovert thing, to derive strength from ceaseless stimulation, as congenial to the extrovert as it is horrifying to me. To the young, pretty much everything is novel, and I can cut them plenty of slack for their innocent avidity in their pursuits (I’ll also relay my father’s caution to me, for all the good it will do: “You can read about almost everything, you don’t have to try it for yourself”). Leavened with curiosity, some novelty-seekers strive unremittingly to improve their skill and knowledge; I willingly turn a blind eye to that kind of excess. The novelty-seeker afflicted by acquisitiveness, who has not yet learned that the faux happiness from consuming goods is ephemeral and that he’ll always need to buy more, is more to be pitied than censured. Angling as I am for a berth in one of the more temperate rings of the Inferno, I can ill afford to judge those at the other end of the novelty-seeking spectrum.

It would be boring indeed if we did not occasionally go with the new, but as someone who’s watched puddles dry in the sun, boring doesn’t scare me. Without novelty there would be no progress, a state probably all of us reject, yet it’s easy to mistake mere novelty for progress. So the quest for restraint and balance and discipline goes on.

My former English teacher, upon my discovering his new Facebook page, responded to my raised eyebrow by channeling Pope: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, / Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” If I were as quick on my feet as he is, I would have chimed in with Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I only clicked the “Like” button. But my heart rests content. I’m still above ground attempting to compute the Golden Mean, and Hunter’s work is done. As long as I remember her, I’m in little danger of shriveling into a crabbed and circumscribed recluse.