One of my favorite jobs as a young political staffer was visiting senior centers with candidates. It gave me a chance to rub elbows with people who'd seen it all.
Typically, I'd saddle up next to a World War II vet or, say, an elderly black woman from "downsouth" -- people who had experienced real adversity -- and listen for nuggets of wisdom worth parking in the back of the brain. What I really wanted to do was shake each of them by the shoulders and demand, "Dammit, Gladys, what's the secret to life?!" But I always managed to restrain myself, thank you very much.
I was seeking what we all seek: Objective answers to life's questions -- what's it all about? What's the secret to happiness? How many years did you smoke, exactly, before quitting? And, can you still breathe . . . a little?
For years I thought about interviewing elderly people for a book that I'd call something like, "The Secrets to Life by a Bunch of Brooklyn Seniors," which I was pretty sure would sell. But the notion got put into a pile of a hundred other abandoned ideas, like Rorschach test T-shirts (great bar conversation starters), a polite-sounding car horn for nonemergency situations and coffee bags, which came to be without me.
But the older I've gotten, and the closer I come to joining a senior center myself -- I turn 50 on Saturday -- the more I realize that subjectivity knows no age boundary. A senior is as likely to tell you that the secret to happiness is a good prune danish as it is a loving spouse.
But there are certain truths, however subjective, that we all pick up over the course of life that are probably worth noting. And, if you'll indulge me on my birthday, here's an incomplete list of what one middle-aged Irishman has surmised at the half-century mark:
There is a God, especially when you believe in Him.
The best way to stop a bully is to punch him in the nose.
Those old adages? They're all true. Every one of them.
If you treat everyone like a distant cousin, you'll get along fine.
If you encounter two jerks in the same day, you're the jerk.
Your instincts are a lot smarter than you are.
Committees are inherently dangerous.
People are better off never trying cheese.
There is a natural flow to life and resisting it is exhausting, futile and perversely exhilarating.
If you're not early, you're late (stolen from my father).
To understand the news, ask yourself who placed the story and why.
None of us may be dumber than all of us, but it really does take a village to raise a child.
People are fundamentally good -- and they do awful things.
Emotion drives nearly everything we do and think, including our political beliefs. And our primary emotion is fear.
I have a whole bunch more that I'll spare you here today, and I'm sure you each have plenty of your own. But there is one more worth noting, which may very well have come from Gladys:
Beware of anyone offering you the secrets to life.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.