Smile Politely

The received wisdom

Superior Donuts,” the Chicago-based play about an Uptown donut shop, its crusty Polish owner and the black kid with dreams who works there, has more than its share of insightful moments.

“I didn’t know you had to have hope to raise a kid,” the owner tells his hired help, a bit of wisdom that, as usual, arrived belatedly in life. “I didn’t know you couldn’t raise a kid without it.”

Later, the kid tells him, “Well, you really should get a colonoscopy.” It’s just a throwaway line in Tracy Letts’ warm and perceptive play. But it is a measure of how keen Letts is in capturing human dialogue, because I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people deliver that exact same line in the exact same way:

“You really should get a colonoscopy.”

A cousin, Diane, talked with me at a family reunion after her husband had undergone some recent surgical treatment. “You really should get a colonoscopy,” she told me, opening her eyes wide as though speaking the wisdom of the ages.

At least two doctors, at two different times, asked me my age and then, as though uttering the most recently vintaged mantra of revelatory truth, said the same thing in exactly the same way, although nothing symptomatic or in my medical history provided any justification for this imperative. It came totally out of the blue, this sudden interest in the state of my innards. Or, maybe there is just interest in polyps and the newest invasive, snake-like technologies. More likely, it’s the latest medical fad to help fill the old coffers of the medical establishment.

I’ll be done with this opening part of the story in a minute, I promise. My next door neighbor, John, who also happens to be a nurse, succumbed to the received wisdom that he really should get a colonoscopy. After the procedure, the hospital called me to come pick him up and drive him home. It seems that as he came out of the anesthesia he started singing hymns loudly in a half-awake state, insisting at the same time he was fully capable of operating stick-shift machinery. But he did get his colonoscopy.

The point is, I am skeptical of almost everything I hear, no matter how much “obviously, this is true” tone is in their voices.

I was reading The Great Gatsby last week when, at the mention of F. Scott Fitzgerald, my son immediately stated, “There are no second acts in American lives,” something that Fitzgerald apparently said and that gets repeated as though it were etched in stone.

Really? No second acts? Can anyone say, Cher? Americans are adept at reinventing themselves, or at least they used to be. I don’t know where the alcoholic Fitzgerald gets off making such a sweeping, and false, categorization that almost everyone seems to accept out of hand. If anyone’s career disproved Fitzgerald’s false truism, surely it would be the recently deceased Leslie Nielsen, who flipped from a dramatic actor into a comic one with great success. Yes, I said surely.

Conservatives have been spouting another such canard, wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, for as long as I can remember. “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re 35, you have no brain” is one of the variations of this saying. Again, it’s utter nonsense, except perhaps for those who have amassed just enough property and stability that they decide it’s time to kick down the ladder, burn their embarrassing old T-shirts, donate to tax-deductible charity organizations, and otherwise give up all interest in social change.

Of course, we live in the Era of Deceit, bombarded by a million lies every day. Last week, Fox Nation reprinted a story about a 150-page email President Obama had sent to thousands of people around the country. Outraged comments from readers doubted the sanity of the President and demanded he be kicked out of office immediately. Of course, the story originally appeared in the satirical publication The Onion, although Fox failed to note (or perhaps even notice) this. And the lie circulates forever as a fact.

People don’t care much about the truth, or they deny it defensively, lest they face embarrassment at being conned.

Everyone believed there were weapons of mass destruction. The lawyers told me that waterboarding was legal. Obama was born in Kenya.

People believe what they want to believe, even when all evidence is to the contrary.

Such a strange time we live in, when people boast about their recent colonoscopy.

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