Common Sense Approach to Common Sense

A long time ago in a city (Newark) not so far away, in galaxy of the mind, I was distilled and instilled as I was growing up with valuable rules for engaging life, by my mother, whose smiling picture hangs just inches away from my computer screen. In seventh grade, a copy of Dale Carnegie’s paperback book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was affixed to my flexible flyer sled as part of a birthday present. Instructions were to read, commit, extract as much as I could and mix it with plain old common sense to guide me through life because mother stressed, she wouldn’t always be around. “Use your head, Calvin. You don’t need to be like Einstein to accomplish.” Mother perseverated, reminding me to think and develop common sense. Soon back in school, I studied about Thomas Paine and ‘Common Sense,’ published in 1776, which challenged the authority of the British government and the royal monarchy. The plain language that Paine used spoke to the people in the colonies and was the first words to openly call for independence from Great Britain. Common sense told me to only read the first several pages of Dale Carnegie and gleaned (a nice word) that “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t.”  What also still endures is a powerful visual of the last words my mother said to me as she walked out of my college dorm room, after lining my dresser draws with smooth white paper and making my bed for the last time, “Calvin, just use common sense in college.”

Cut to two years later and beginning of second semester at Pharmacy school. President Johnson finished outlining his ‘Great Society’ and 18 people were arrested in Mississippi for the murders of those three civil rights workers and I was happy. The Dean of Pharmacy School reminded as we began a 10 week experiment to make aspirin that every year he gives the same speech; a warning not to cut lab, go to a local pharmacy and at semester’s end hand in crushed-up commercial aspirin. Every year kids get thrown out for that cheating. Next to the last week of school, I used the Bunsen burner too aggressively and vaporized whatever chance I had to spend a restful fun summer. I was flunking lab with no aspirin to hand in. None of my compatriots offered to help. Resignation set in about a long hot laborious summer in a make-up lab. On the last day, as students handed in their lab made aspirin, I reached for the Ajax cleanser to clean my glass beakers and test tubes. I observed the color and consistency of the Ajax seemed to mirror the lab aspirin. And I remembered the Dean never said anything about handing in Ajax and it was a few hours before grades were due, so I filled up an opaque brown jar with Ajax. Echoes of mother’s common sense exhortations still make me smile. I got an A in aspirin lab; perhaps it was filling the jar to the very top.

Cut to decades later when I was in optical sales. I drove for 2 ½ hours down to the land of eggs and honey, Vineland, New Jersey, walked into an optometrist’s office and booked an appointment to sell them eyeglasses. A few weeks later another multi-hour drive back just to sell this one optometrist. I carry two large sample bags into the office 15 minutes early. The receptionist informs that there is no appointment and the doctor won’t see me. Anger fills my sensibilities on the long lonely winding drive back. Twenty-three minutes later, a significant speeding ticket. But something strange occurred when I got home, after a few pretzels dipped in brown mustard, washed down with lime flavored seltzer; all those frustrating driving hours didn’t make a difference cause it wasn’t real. The only reality in my life was a fresh mustard stain on a Van Heusen white shirt and all that time earlier in Vineland was just a dream like the old Jimmy Clanton song. Common sense had prevailed and allowed me to put life’s exigencies into proper perspective. In matters not of the heart but of the expenditure of time and energy, the past is only prologue; learn lessons but never dwell except in the present for it’s the only reality. I suddenly didn’t care about that optometrist or even the irreparable mustard stain any more. An hour later, I napped thinking of sugar plum fairies and the first time ever I saw Santa Claus’ face at Bamberger’s in Newark with my mother; still a smile evoker; a mother’s enduring common sense, telling me not to pull on the beard, it wasn’t real.

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