Phil Gulley: Life Is No Picnic

Few things are as good in real life as they are in theory.
My mom and I went to her doctor’s office recently, and while she was being seen, I looked around for something to read. There were two choices, a pamphlet about yeast infections and a magazine called True Romance. I’d been slipping in the romance department—not shaving on my day off, belching after dinner, scratching my belly—so I went with the latter. It had an article about a couple who went on a picnic, fell in love, and were married. The writer obviously had a high opinion of picnics, believing they were the miracle elixir for sluggish relationships.
It made me think of every picnic I’ve ever been on and how all of them were miserable from start to finish—sitting on hard ground, swatting flies, dodging hornets, drinking a lukewarm Big K cola, and eating a slice of bologna on Wonder Bread, which I don’t even like, but seems to magically appear every time I dine outside. There was no mention of hornets or bologna in the story, just an uninterrupted stretch of romance, culminating in a wedding at a barn.
Picnics are just one thing better in theory than real life. Walking barefoot in the grass is another. I once saw a movie about a couple whose marriage was circling the drain until they walked barefoot across a field. From then on, everything was hunky-dory. But anyone who goes barefoot eventually steps on a rusty nail and gets tetanus. Or slices their foot on a sliver of glass and bleeds out amidst the daisies. Or steps in something left by a cow. I own a farm and regularly step in things left by cows, so you can trust me on this. It’s a minefield out there.
Along the same lines, nothing cheers me up more than the thought of a new car, and nothing depresses me more than actually buying one. I’ve never driven off a car lot without despising the vehicle that, 24 hours before, I believed was key to my happiness. I now drive a 1999 Toyota Corolla devoid of every comfort, and it’s my favorite car ever because it only took five minutes to negotiate and secure its purchase. I was walking past our neighbor’s house and saw him standing in his driveway staring at the Corolla and looking dejected. I asked him what was wrong and he said he’d just bought the car for his daughter, and she didn’t want it.
“Now I’m out $3,000,” he said.
I walked around it, kicked the tires, and offered him $3,000 for it.
We shook hands, I wrote him a check, he signed over the title, and a minute later I drove it home to show my wife.
My 1999 Corolla has given me nothing but pleasure, and I drive it everywhere I go, even though I have a 2014 Ford Flex that does everything but dance the rumba. But it took three days to buy, and when I finally got the keys, I wanted to drive it straight into a car crusher.
Automobiles aren’t the only form of transportation that overpromise. Whenever I see a picture of happy people bicycling in the Netherlands, I get the urge to ride into town to visit the library. I always forget the Netherlands are mostly flat, which is why the cyclists are happy. But it’s uphill from my house to the town square, and by the time I reach the library, I’m wrung out. Plus, drivers don’t always move over to make room for me, and I’ve been run off into the ravines that line our road. One day I’m going to end up dead at the bottom of one, and a neighbor will find my corpse some spring while searching for mushrooms.
Mushrooms are another thing better in theory than practice. People around here are crazy about them. Ray Whitaker is always the first to find them, and he takes a sackful to Betty Bartley at the newspaper, who runs a photo of Ray holding them aloft, the pirate displaying his plunder. People talk of little else for days, even though I suspect it’s the finding they relish, not the outcome, since mushrooms are slimy and tasteless and should not be consumed. That’s why God made many of them poisonous, so we wouldn’t eat them and die. If I were going to die from eating something, it would be something tastier than a mushroom.
As long as we’re on the subject of disillusionment, I’d be remiss not to mention doctors. I don’t visit them often, but when I do, I usually leave disappointed by the experience. I go expecting the doctor to discover what’s wrong with me and to have free samples of the medicine that will cure me immediately. I certainly don’t want to be told I’ll feel bad for another week and there’s nothing they can do, or that antibiotics don’t work with viruses, or that there’s no cure for what I have. A country that has put a dozen men on the moon ought to be able to fix whatever’s wrong with me.
Let’s not forget the things that are better in print than in practice. When I was in 8th grade, my history teacher, Mr. Ellis, told me the Constitution was perfect. “Never in the history of the world has a finer document been written to guide the affairs of man,” he said. Mr. Ellis had a knack for the declarative sentence that made all of his utterances seem Gospel-true. Pastor Taylor, who led one of the churches I attended as a kid, said the same thing about the Bible. I spent my youth careening from one absolute to the other, but have since concluded both documents have their flaws.
Nothing against young people, but the Constitution says the minimum age for a president should be 35. Have you ever met a 35-year-old you would trust with that job? No one should be president until they’ve raised teenagers without killing them. Malia and Sasha Obama were 10 and 7 when their father became president, and he got off to a bumpy start—failing to close Guantánamo, letting the crooked bankers who tanked our economy off scot-free, getting a Portuguese Water Dog instead of a rat terrier. But by the time his kids were teenagers, he had the job down pat.
As for the Bible, I’m not going to say anything bad about it because I don’t want to get a sackful of hate mail from certain folks in my town. (People in Danville do everything by the sackful.) I’ll just say that never in the history of the world has a finer document been written to guide the affairs of man. How’s that for safe?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the things that disappoint me, which says a lot about my outlook on life. The way I see it, life is mostly a field of cow patties and none of us are wearing shoes.